India’s a challenge to travel by motorbike, but it’s sure as shit a rewarding one. I particularly loved the high mountain roads in around Rishikesh and Uttarkashi, and the road to Darjeeling. I’d loved to have continued on to tour Sikkim, and heard amazing things about the riding in that area (and on into Nepal) but sickness unfortunately cut my travels short.
For an account of the general oddities and challenges you can expect to hit along the way, check out the (largely humorous) Part 1 to this series. But for the more practical nitty gritty, continue reading on.
First off, you’re going to need a bike. You’ve the option of buying from a shop, a local or from a fellow traveler. I bought my bike at a shop in Rishikesh on recommendation from a friend, and I’d highly recommend Ranjeet to anyone else looking to buy. His contact details are as follows:
Authorized dealer for Royal Enfield
Sales, service, spares, organized tours, good advice
Phone: 9897548171, 9897113728
Address: 585, Laxman Jhoola Road
Near Hemkunt Sahib Gurudwara
Rishkesh 249201 (U.K.) India
I truly cannot say enough good things about Ranjeet. He was honest, helpful, patient and just an all around stand up guy. He also made a couple very helpful suggestions, like adjusting our horns to be louder – a big plus on Indian roads.
Actually buying to own a bike in India as a foreigner is. . .complicated. In short, the bike I purchased (here-out referred to as ‘Hrithik’) remained in Ranjeet’s name. I possessed papers that said I was legally in possession of the bike, and had the ability to sell it should I so choose. But all of the papers, including the mandatory insurance were in Ranjeet’s name.
If you choose to buy from someone (an independent local, a fellow traveler), be aware that you WILL need these papers. If you’re unsure as to what you should have for the state in which you are buying, check with a local shop.
Royal Enfields are the go-to bikes for touring in India, though you do have other options. You can check out a great and far more extensive article on buying here. You’ll see a lot of small bikes like Hero Hondas around, but I wouldn’t personally recommend them for long-term travel, particularly if you have much gear on you. Enfields are the way to go, and easy to procure parts for along the way.
Rentals are obviously also a possibility, but I preferred to own. As to cost, I personally paid 80,000Rs for my 2010 350 cc Bullet Electra with electric start and disc brakes, while I believe Pete paid about 55,000 for his 2006 Thunderbird (kick start only, drum brakes). You can find bikes for cheaper than this but. . .well, let the buyer beware. I’d personally prefer to pay a bit more for a bike I trusted to be in good condition as opposed to getting stranded on the road, and needing to shell out the difference after the fact for repairs anyway. Speaking of repairs:
Repairs and Maintenance
You will need to do repairs on your bike. It’s almost inevitable, and becomes more so over time. With the quality of roads in India and the insanity of the drivers, it’s almost a guarantee you’re going to shake something loose, score a flat or damage something in a wipe-out.
Ranjeet took some time to explain basic repairs to Pete and I, as well as set us up with a tool kit and some spare parts (another bonus of buying from a trusted shop). At the very least, you should be carrying a spare tire tube with you.
For any repairs you can’t manage yourself, bike repair shops are very common throughout India. Pete and I had pretty good luck, never being far from a place when we needed some work done.
Many repairs are done with basic tools (A hammer and chisel seeming to be the most required), and can often be rather makeshift. I broke a piece off my exhaust at one point and I’m pretty sure the attachment I had welded on came from a flattened out door hinge.
Repairs and maintenance are rarely expensive. Again, buying from a trusted shop like Ranjeet’s will allow you to ask for an idea of what things should cost beforehand. Ranjeet was sweet enough to provide his text number so that Pete and I could continue to check in with him from the road whenever we needed work done. As is typical when paying for service in India, negotiate and confirm costs PRIOR to having any work done.
If you want your bike to take care of you, you need to take care of it. Every day before we rode, Pete and I would wipe the bikes down, doing a quick inspection to make sure we hadn’t lost any bolts or loosened any connections while riding the day prior.
Every 500 − 1,000 km you should check your oil, and grease your chain. Every 3 – 4,000 Km, you should try and get your bike into an Enfield shop for full service. They’ll check your brakes, light, horn and change your oil.
Along the way
Between unpaved dirt, potential landslides and renegade cows, there are a lot of obstacles you can expect to encounter while riding in India. Don’t expect to make distances in the same amount of time as back home. You’ll spend a lot of your time creeping along through towns at about 30 or 40 km/hr.
Navigation from point A to B is more straightforward than you’d think, but navigating the towns themselves can be a massive headache at times, especially for special cases like the ghat-front alley roads of Varanasi. Pete and I did our navigating with a combination of a GPS I bought locally for around 200 Canadian dollars, and using 3G connectivity to access maps on his Android phone. The GPS was very reliable for telling us where we were, less reliable for plotting routes of how we should get to where we were going.
When it comes to parking – whether or not your bike is safe outside depends where you are. Your hotel or hostel should be able to tell you whether it’s safe to park outside or not. We sometimes had hotels actually get us to guide our bikes into their front lobbies just to be certain they’d be safe overnight. Most hotels care greatly about their reputations, particularly when it comes to foreigners, and they’ve no desire to see their guest’s bikes get nicked or damaged overnight.
The only place Pete and I had to seek out external parking for our bikes was in Varanasi. The only garages we could find were completely blocked, so we arranged to store our bikes with a local shop in the area at around 200 Rs per night.
If you ever need to cover a long distance in a short time (like, say, when you’re feeling weak with dysentery and not up for a 3-day gruelling haul), you have the possibility of loading your bike onto a train. But PROCEED WITH CAUTION. If you don’t feel good about the agency you’re hiring to transport your bike, scrap it and make the ride yourself. Pete and I did receive our bikes (thank fuck) at the end of our journey, but there were a couple irritations – Despite having paid to have them packed properly (wrapped for protection), they hadn’t been. And, most infuriatingly, they had written the address to which the bikes were headed in permanent marker RIGHT ONTO THE BIKES. Like, on the chrome of the fender and right on Hrithik’s goddamn leather seat. I was fuming. If I hadn’t been concerned about shitting myself to death I would have wrung someone’s neck.
It was only as I was just going back through photos to fill out there posts that I realized how much freedom the bikes really afforded us, and how fortunate we were to travel India with them. The smaller towns that join the cities on the tourist circuit really are the heart and soul of India, and getting to them without the bikes would have been a challenge. Likewise for the high mountain passes that were the source of the most stunning scenery we experienced during our travels.
Traveling the way we did afforded us a broader view of India as a whole, and I feel extremely blessed for it.
Next post up will be ‘A Vagabond’s Budget in India’ where I write about the thing that seems to get most travel writer’s panties in a bunch – what I actually spent. See you then.
*Have I missed touching on something you’re curious about? Feel free to hit me up with questions in the comments block below, and I’ll add to this article where I can as questions come in.
*These reviews are regarding travels that took place February to April of 2012.
*Photos from these travels can be viewed over Flickr here or on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.