Week Thirty-Nine: A True Taste of Indian Roads

27/12/19-02/01/19

Country: India
States: Goa, Karnataka, Kerala (briefly) 

Distance: 223 km / 139 mi
Elevation: 3,191 m / 10,469 ft

Train: 232 km / 144 mi

15th December: the last time we really cycled anywhere. That’s eleven days of being in a sedentary state on a beautiful beach. The pathetic bit of cycling we did do over the last couple of weeks was to merely move beaches. We ended up visiting five Goan beaches, which is impressive when you think Goa is only 100 km long (it’s one of the smallest states in India). We got so lazy, so to say the first ride after Christmas was tough would definitely be an understatement.

Just a quick something I forgot last week, before I explain how painful the first few days back in the saddle were. You’ll never guess who we bumped into on Palolem beach in Goa? Rupert! The crazy carpenter from Cambridge who’s walking the length of India. Now either we’re really slow, or he’s really fast… And get this for a small world – bear with me on this one – Dan and I met Rupert on a ferry a few weeks ago. Rupert also met another British couple on another ferry, Tom and Troy, who are motorbiking down the west coast of India. We happened to be on Palolem beach at the same time as Rupert and arranged to meet. On the way to the bar, Rupert randomly bumped into Tom and Troy and the five of us had beers together. Tom’s two brothers were also there briefly, having flew out to meet them for Christmas, but had to dash to sort their hotel. The next day we bumped into Tom and one of his brothers at the supermarket. It’s there his brother said he’d recognised us on the beach, but couldn’t work out where from. He’d racked his brains all night before realising we’d stayed at the campsite he was working at in Freiburg, Germany, with Dan’s brother, Jacob, back in May. How random to see him again in Goa of all places. Small world, or what?

Back to the post-Christmas pain… The first day we snoozed and snoozed again. We didn’t set off until 11am, by which time it was getting close to the hottest part of the day. After 29 km we stopped for some lunch and shade. We noticed the restaurant had rooms and before we knew it, we had booked a night there. ‘Tomorrow we’ll try harder’, we promised.

The following day, still easing ourselves back into the 5am starts, we’d set the alarm for 7am. Try as he might, however, Dan just couldn’t get me to wake up. You know when you’re that tired you literally can’t keep your eyes open? That was me. I wouldn’t budge. We ended up booking another night and having a day off. So lazy.

We did mange to get up the next day and were cycling by 8.30am. Not bad. But the ride itself was gruelling; it was all highway. Not what we’d signed up for. We thought our lovely coastal route would carry on all the way along the coast to Kochi, Kerala. Nope. Highway 66, which had been inland this whole time, was now hogging the coastline – and there was no way to escape it, as national parks and mountains were now in the way. This was the only road south.  

Notice Highway 66 sits inland before Goa, before running along the coast thereafter.

Notice Highway 66 sits inland before Goa, before running along the coast thereafter.

To make matters worse, they were redoing most of Highway 66, so not only did we have to deal with crazy highway traffic, we had to deal with crazy highway traffic that had no idea what was going on, with all the diversions and road works. It was manic. Random parts of the road were closed, forcing traffic to suddenly join lanes. Diversion signs didn’t make sense. And there were rogue drivers using both sides of the road in both directions, essentially turning each side of the road into two separate roads. Add to that a few steep inclines, where our max speed was 4 km/h, and you’ve got yourself two cyclists who had just had enough. It was only a matter of time before something hit us, so we decided to throw in the towel and caught the train as far down the coast as possible.

We went 232 km from Ankola to Mangaluru (pronounced: Mangalore) for £2.40. It was so worth it. Getting the bikes onboard was much simpler than our previous train experience, as it was a local train. There was no need to book a spot, we just heaved them on. We assumed the journey would only take 3 hours max, since it was only 232 km. When will we learn? Never assume... It took 5.5 hours and we were sat in the cargo hold with the bikes the whole time. No toilet. No proper seats. No lights. On the plus side, there was no crowd though. You’ve probably seen pictures of how busy the local trains in India get? People pack in like sardines – some even sit on the roof. We were so glad to get off when we arrived at 8.30pm.

We thought we’d be in our hotel by 6pm…

We thought we’d be in our hotel by 6pm…

I think my face says it all…

I think my face says it all…

To keep ourselves occupied during the much-longer-than-expected journey, we assessed the route. Did we really want to go to Kochi if it meant cycling the whole way on Highway 66? Not a chance. We’d put so much effort into avoiding main roads the last two months, we didn’t want to spoil it now, so we made the decision to skip Kochi and head inland to Ooty in the Nigiri Mountains. We prefer the mountains anyway and it’s been a couple of months since we’ve felt the true burn of an incline.  

It’s funny, as soon as we headed inland, the roads got considerably quieter, as we passed through villages rather than towns, and prices returned to the budget-friendly level we’ve been used to. For example, two veg curries, six paratha, two double-egg omelettes, and one single-egg omelette (I was still hungry) only cost £1.60. And accommodation is back to being £5-7 per night.

Fancy beachside hotels with a balcony or garden are long gone. We’re back to brewing our morning coffees in car parks or alleyways.

Fancy beachside hotels with a balcony or garden are long gone. We’re back to brewing our morning coffees in car parks or alleyways.

Then it was the end of 2018. What a year! New Year’s Eve was a lowkey event in the end, which is exactly what we wanted after such a heavy Christmas. We found a lovely hotel in Bellare – insert Fresh Price joke here – and had a beer over dinner to toast to 2019. Then we watched a Louie CK stand-up and like most things we watch after 9pm, I was asleep before the end. Dan actually saw 2019 in alone. 

Cheers to a bloody good year.

Cheers to a bloody good year.

We took New Year’s Day off because, well, you lot at home were off and it didn’t feel right if you were slouching on the coach and we weren’t. Then, after nearly a week’s recovery – we don’t remember going back to work after Christmas being this tough, then again, we don’t really remember what it’s like to work anymore… – we got back on the bikes and proved we could actually still cycle, with a tough climb. In fact, we hit a record: our biggest elevation gain in one day. Our previous record was 1,444 m on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.

On our ride, we stopped for lunch at the most welcoming homestay. The owner, Ranjin (bottom right), is one of the most memorable characters we’ve met in India so far. Full of energy and positivity, he asked us  lots  of questions. When he learned that Dan studied Graphic Design at university, he insisted on giving us a tour of his art collection. He also asked his photographer friend to do a photoshoot with the expensive camera Dan’s holding. It was a shame we’d stopped there so early, otherwise we would have stayed the night.

On our ride, we stopped for lunch at the most welcoming homestay. The owner, Ranjin (bottom right), is one of the most memorable characters we’ve met in India so far. Full of energy and positivity, he asked us lots of questions. When he learned that Dan studied Graphic Design at university, he insisted on giving us a tour of his art collection. He also asked his photographer friend to do a photoshoot with the expensive camera Dan’s holding. It was a shame we’d stopped there so early, otherwise we would have stayed the night.

The climb took us through Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. The road ran just inside, so we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee. We were warned of wild elephants and big cats, but sadly we never saw anything.

The climb took us through Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. The road ran just inside, so we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee. We were warned of wild elephants and big cats, but sadly we never saw anything.

I said we went through the state of Kerala briefly…

I said we went through the state of Kerala briefly…

Usually with a muscle-burning uphill comes a white-knuckle downhill. But not this time. We’ll now float at 800 m for the next 200 km (read: rolling hills with around 2,300 m elevation), before we climb to Ooty, which sits at 2,270 m altitude. Then comes the 50 km white-knuckle downhill…