In the north of India, deep in the mountainous region of the Himalayas, lies the state Uttarakhand which is almost undiscovered by western tourism. In Uttarakhand originates the most holy river Ganges and Hindu pilgrims sites are found all over the state. Me and one friend rode through Uttarakhand in October 2015 for four weeks with our touring bikes.
Retrospect: The time before the tour
When I told people about that I plan to go on a bicycle tour in India for several months, most of them thought of it as a plain stupid idea and some even told me that I would die on this attempt. At the same time I was struggling to find any decent information about biking in India, especially about the remote regions. To save you from this trouble and to give you some confidence that a bicycle tour in India is definitely doable, I created this post.
I hesitated to write an article about Uttarakhand because it is such a unique and original place. I can truly say that it’s one of my favourite places and I feel that too many tourists will impact the culture a lot. While Uttarakhand is currently almost undiscovered by western tourism, I’m pretty sure that the boom in Uttarakhand is almost inevitable. It’s one of the fastest growing economies in India with almost 20% of economic growth in 2015 (source).
On the Road: How cycling in Uttarakhand really was
What I had heard of India before our tour sounded like hell for cyclists: insane traffic, mad drivers, constant noise, polluted air and heat. But as you know, India is huge and this information is only true for some parts of the country. In some ways it was true for Uttarakhand. Yes, Uttarakhand was very intense and we went to our hotel room every evening at 7pm because we were so overwhelmed by the impressions. And yes, sometimes it was really hot and noisy.
But: All in all, Uttarakhand was way more chilled than the rest of India. I would call it “India light” as it is not as hot as the rest of the country due to the altitude. Plus the traffic here is restricted to some Hindu pilgrims or a few trucks bringing supplies to the mountain villages. On our jeep tour to Rishikesh we saw the traffic in Uttar Pradesh and we thought that cycling is simply impossible on these roads. Our original plan was to cycle south of the Himalayas through Uttar Pradesh to avoid the huge mountains. But as soon as we saw the traffic there we reconsidered our plans and hoped that in the mountains the traffic would be less insane. Best choice ever!
Good road conditions, minimal road traffic and moderate temperatures make it ideal for cyclists. A challenge provide of course the steep and sustained ascents but we got used to these pretty fast. As anywhere in India, the touristic infrastructure is very good and you never have to worry about finding food or accommodation. There are so many interesting things and the views are gorgeous. We were absolutely surprised by the state!
How To Pack
Just a few tips, what you need to bring and what you better leave at home.
- Raining equipment is not necessary unless you go in the wet season. During our four weeks in Uttarakhand it was raining on two days only. In case you really get caught by a monsoon rain it will be pretty much impossible to cycle anyway. In that case it’s better to have some sort of cover where you can hide under and wait until the rain is over.
- I do not recommend bringing camping equipment to India because you will hardly ever find a good spot to put your bike. Accommodation is very cheap and found easily, even in very small villages.
- You don’t need your own cooker because you can enjoy the delicious local food which is also extremely cheap.
- Bring a warm sleeping bag if you want to go higher in elevation. On lower elevations it can be very hot but starting at 2500m the temperatures start to get lower and lower by every meter in elevation. We once slept at 3000m and it was almost freezing temperature inside our room.
- Chlorine would be good in order to make the tap water drinkable. We never had any problems but better be safe. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles all the time because they just burn the rubbish in India which is very nasty.
Information On The Country
Isn’t it crazy to cycle in the biggest mountains of the world?
Yes, of course it is. There are days when you cycle uphill the entire day. The longest ascent was 70 kilometers without a second of downhill. You switch to the lowest gear and go uphill for 10 hours in a row. However, it is also so rewarding to finish your day on the top and look back on the road you cycled up. And the landscape will pay you back ten times of course.
What about the traffic?
In Uttarakhand there is very little traffic. On the first two days only a handful of cars passed us. The people in India are used to all kind of animals, vehicles and pedestrians on the road. So you and your bicycle will just be another obstacle for a normal driver. Avoid big cities though if you prefer little traffic.
Are the roads in an acceptable condition?
The road condition was surprisingly well! 90% of the roads were paved and as they have to rebuild the roads regularly, many of them even freshly paved. It might be though, that shortly after the wet season the roads are in a worse condition. It can also be that some are even impassable because the flood took them away or bridges got destroyed.
How are the people?
Uttarakhand sees few foreign tourists which means that the people are very curious and excited when they see a foreigner. Cyclists attract even more attention as cycling is considered only for poor people in India. A lot of motorcyclists talked to us while we were cycling, children were running down the street trying to catch our bikes and in the villages literally every person waved and shouted at us. Generally the people were very hospitable and nice, although the language barrier made conversation a bit difficult sometimes.
We had very few bad experiences, for example a hotelier once wanted to charge more money than appropriate or we had some miscommunications because we didn’t speak Hindi.
Do’s & Don’ts
- Pack light. Your legs will thank you once you cycle uphill an entire day. Think double before you put something into your bags!
- Learn some basic Hindi beforehand or bring a small dictionary. This can be a life saviour as people speak almost no english in the small villages.
- Try the local kitchen – it’s delicious. There is a difference however between the street food and small places where all the local people eat and the restaurant that mostly aim for tourists and richer people. In small villages you will only find local street food places.
We didn’t have particularly good experiences with the restaurants. They were comparatively expensive, had an overfull menu (which was in Hindi only many times) and were pretty unhygienic. We found the street food and local places had much better quality food, which came freshly from the fields and absolutely delicious. You could already see the pots from the street and point at the food you want. We always looked for the places with many local people inside because the locals know where the good food is. But I guess that is true for any country. Just remember: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”!
- Wild camping
Don’t bring a tent to India. You will hardly find a quiet place as there are people living everywhere and I would bet that you have some unexpected visitors the next morning opening your tent. Indians are very curious and see privacy differently than western people. Also, the military might think that you are a poacher, especially when camping close to National Parks.
Accommodation in India is so cheap that it is not worth the effort of camping. You only pay $3-$10 dollars for hotels; of course depending on your bargaining skills and the conditions of the hotel.
- Cycling at night
Almost every local warned us no to be out in the woods at night. Apparently there are living wild leopards that regularly kill people. And while the Indians often tended to be overly scared of everything I did believe them on this one. You won’t be able to enjoy the views at night anyways – so stay in the villages during night-time.
- Gain elevation too quickly
From 3000m on do not gain more than 500m of elevation per day. Climbing too fast can lead to altitude sickness.
- Don’t get deceived by the mafia in Delhi like we were – always stay at a place which offers a pickup service from the airport and use this one!
Our hostel had such a pickup service but we couldn’t use it as our bikes were too big for the cars from the hostel. Therefore we decided to take a taxi on arrival that you can find everywhere near the airport. Bad mistake! We got into the clutches of the Delhi mafia, had a lot of trouble and paid way too much for our ride. If you go to India the first time, just take the pickup service from the hotel!
And if you once get into the situation that the driver tries to tell you the street of your hotel is closed – insist that he takes you there. Whatever he says – you keep insisting! You shout, you scream, you do whatever it takes but you do not accept the alternative of the driver.
Our route for our tour was heavily inspired by the blog Pikes On Bikes. They have a lot of great pictures and detailed route suggestions. I tried to split our route into meaningful segments. The lines on the map do not represent the real distances as they are only polygon lines.
Rishikesh – Landsdowne
We started our tour in Rishikesh and cycled on a very remote road to Landsdowne. There wasn’t even a hotel or guest house on the way so we had to stay at someone else’s home. The road goes mostly through jungle-like forest and you pass a few villages.
Landsdowne – Rudraprayag
On the way you will pass some beautiful towns and the district’s capital Pauri. Cycling up to Pauri can be very exhausting as it will be uphill for 50 km.
Rudraprayag – Chopta
It absolutely worth taking the detour from Rudraprayag to Karnaprayag via Chopta. The route was truly one of the highlights during our tour, also because of the many attractions along the way. We split this segment into two days of cycling – the first night we spent in “Saari Village”, a tiny village with lodges for trekkers. You can hike up to Deoria Tal, a small lake on a mountain. When you sleep in Chopta the second night, I recommend to hike up to Tungnath, a temple with an absolutely stunning view of the Himalaya. A special highlight will be to go there before sunrise – the view is best in the morning, before the haze starts to rise.
Some additional notes for this segment:
- You can also trek from Sari village to Chopta on a trail that goes through the forests. You probably need a guide however that takes you from one village to the other because the path is not marked as far as I know.
- Beware! There are two different villages named Chopta, one is on a different route to Nandaprayag.
- Up in Chopta it was really cold during the night. And as the lodges have only very thin walls, it was almost freezing inside our room.
Chopta – Karnaprayag
When cycling from Chopta to Karnaprayag, there is the option to make a detour and see the village Ghat. If you have the time, you can do it, but I wouldn’t say that you miss a lot.
Karnaprayag – Almora
On the way from Karnaprayag to Almora there are some villages that are worth seeing. For example Gwaldam is very nice and a good place to sleep at. Almora is a very interesting place and one of the bigger cities in Uttarakhand. It is totally worth to spend a one or two days there.
Almora – Bhim Datta
The part from Almora to Champawat was very beautiful with great views on the remote peaks of the Himalaya. On the road from Champawat to Bhim Datta there was a lot more traffic than on the rest of the tour, as it is one of the main trade routes between Nepal, Uttarakhand and the rest of India.
An alternative is to take road via Jageshwar which houses some very old temples and buildings. Then you can also continue even more north into the higher mountains if you still haven’t got enough of Uttarakhand. We were short on time unfortunately but I think that this could be really nice!