On the road in India

A 12 day tour of Rajasthan: Delhi, Daipur, Jodhpur and the Taj Mahal

It’s December 28th 2019. Imagine yourself driving along the M4 in freezing fog from London to Reading. But instead, you in an alternative universe:  travelling from Delhi to Jaipur in the coldest winter in 100 years .  

The freezing fog might be the same, but the vehicle (an old mini-bus equipped only with extra cold air conditioning instead of heating) and the driving are most definitely not.

The vehicles in front of you don’t have rear fog lamps – or if they have them the drivers would prefer to preserve the bulbs by not using them. Worse still, many vehicles have no rear lights at all. 

You might try to stay safe by keeping in your lane. But you’re continually confused by other drivers casually drifting across the white lines – for no apparent reason and without warning. 

Then imagine that every few miles there is a zebra crossing. Across a motorway! And to make things more exciting for the courageous pedestrian, it has been painted there without belisha beacons – or any other advanced warning signs. Instead there are three rows of rather fat sleeping policeman just a handful of metres before the crossing. The large numbers of lumbering heavy commercial vehicles prefer to slow down suddenly for these – and cross them at 3mph – to safeguard their payloads, not the pedestrians. 

Remember when we were happily clamping our mobiles to our ears while driving? A now illegal habit in the UK, we have seen the error of our ways. Again, imagine that you can and must do this – as everybody else is doing it too.

And in this other world you might also like to look out for cyclists and small motorcycles (and occasional horse & carts) travelling on the hard shoulder. You’ll be able to see on their generally helmet-free faces how untroubling this challenge is.  How so? Well quite a few are going in the wrong direction.  On the subject of ‘ghost drivers’ (our name for people suicidally driving the wrong way on a dual carriageway) – be warned this is now a not uncommon occurrence amongst car drivers too.

Then imagine that there has been one (of many) inevitable accidents on the other carriageway: the queues build up fast. Some impatient drivers decide the best option is to do a U-turn across the central reservation. Emerging through the gloom into your path at 3 mph… 

You will also need to watch your mirrors – on both sides. Cars will over and undertake you – without use of their indicators. If you are lucky you might hear them sound their horn. Get used to ‘Fast & Furious’ style weaving to get by slow moving trucks and tractors. You will note quite high levels of skill in doing this – but it does rely on everyone else being thoroughly alert.

And finally, when there is a clear stretch of road, it has to be paid for with a toll booth – creating huge tailbacks. A 30 km journey can easily take an hour.

The roads and alleyways of city and towns

It is hard to argue with the need to use cars when travelling long distances. But why does everyone in India endure incredible congestion and smog by doing the same in towns and cities? 

One answer seems to be a lack of alternatives – namely a modern,comprehensive and organised public transport system.

The contrast between Delhi and London is marked in this respect.  These are two huge capital cities – although Delhi has a much, much larger population of 26 million. London buses are a shoals of red on the main roads. And then there are the Tube, Overground and DLR to syphon commuters off the roads. The result is an environment safe enough for commuter cyclists, which includes my wife and me. And we are not brave.

In Delhi there is a basic metro system, but buses seem few and far between. So, the private sector has filled the vacuum. Inevitably, this is not an organised big company of state response. Instead, the roads are filled with thousands of small coaches, taxis, tuk-tuks and dwindling numbers of cycle rickshaws, all competing for customers and space. 

I will be honest and admit that I like private enterprise, but it’s vital that commonly agreed standards (sometime known as ‘laws’) exist and are adhered to – to make life safe for all concerned. I don’t know what the laws of the road are in India, but they are not well enforced. During our trip we saw very few police vehicles – and none on the trunk roads. 

Exceeding speed limits is not the big concern as the amount of traffic, and the types of vehicles, means you don’t see boy racers showing off how much power they have – yet.

I love the Tuk Tuk

If you’ve never seen one, they look like the result of a romance between an old Citroen 2CV and a Reliant Robin. They get their name from the machine gun fire exhaust noise.   Tuk Tuks are the Jack Russels of the road, excitedly bouncing about and making a lot of noise, while bigger creatures lumber calmly on.

Occupying the cheap end of the taxi (and tiny van) market, these three wheelers are everywhere and are great value for short journeys.  A trip in one is really as exciting as a Disneyland ride. Experience shake, rattle and roll – as you career down  narrow pedestrian alleys, dodging motorbikes and people plus dogs and, don’t forget, cows. The drivers clearly think that there is no such thing as a gap too small to risk an overtake. 

In the west, if you are constantly annoyed by ‘health and safety gone mad’, you will love the Tuk Tuk.  These tiny tin plate toys have no doors to speak of – let alone side impact bars. Instead of airbags there is plenty of air as the side windows do not feature any actual glass.  The view from the seats are untroubled by head restraints and you won’t feel at all constricted by seat belts. Some might argue, as racing drivers once did, that you are better off not strapped in, enabling you to be thrown clear in the event of an accident.…

The frontal impact, or crumple, zone is called a driver. So, I’d recommend you choose a well upholstered one. There is no rear impact zone – as every square inch is taken up by passengers. We often saw additional (fare-paying?) passengers hanging on the outside. A game of ‘how many people can a Tuk-Tuk hold?’ was won by a wheezing machine with nine on board. 

Stability should be minimal with only three wheels. But rigid suspension means they corner like a fairground dodgem. Braking is helped by the lightness of the construction – but please don’t ask for ABS.  The tiny single cylinder motorbike engines may not use much fuel, but they do their best to turn it into the highest possible levels of pollution.

But forget safety and then their small size and nimbleness means there’s no quicker route around town.

Two wheels better

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For now, in India, the small Japanese style motorbike has largely replaced nature’s best two wheeled friend. You can’t blame people for preferring this noisy, smelly, but quick and agile alternative. 

There is another reason: unlike the bicycle, the motorbike is practical transport for the whole family and a useful heavy goods vehicle too. We often saw two adults and two children happily whizzing along on a single machine – with the youngest child at the front helping with the steering.  But if families can only afford one crash helmet it must be for Dad – which says something about the patriarchal culture still prevalent in India. You also see remarkable payloads crammed aboard – from building materials to milk churns to firewood.

Numerous relics of colonial rule exist. In the two-wheeled world, the Royal Enfield is one. A simple, rugged and proper 350cc single cylinder motorbike, it is still made in India. In the UK, the original company disappeared long ago.

We come across a small shrine in a village and stop to take a look. Taking off our shoes, our foreheads are then anointed with an orange mark. In a glass box is the subject of adoration – an old and delipidated Royal Enfield! We never understood quite why.

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TRUCKS!

Given the scale of this vast continent, trucks are essential to carrying goods. We are only touring Rajasthan, but please note this north east corner of India is considerably bigger than the UK.  

 

There are lots of trucks, very old and very slow. Owner operated; they are quite well cared for. Well, I can’t speak for the mechanicals, but much love is lavished on the livery. Classical hand-painted signs on the back encourage you to ‘Blow Horn’. This makes the many alarmingly reckless passing manoeuvres slightly less of a shock for those in the vicinity. But with some many horns, it’s hard to know which message is for you.  Another sign encourages following drivers to ‘Use dipper at night’. A rather quaint request not to avoid full beam headlamps. Some comply by simply not turning them on at all.

The fronts of trucks also feature fairground style sign writing – not so much advertising as proudly proclaiming their mission in life, such as ‘Goods Carrier’. Interiors too are decorated with fabrics and hangings to make the drivers feel at home.

A lot of the new trucks still sport the round Leyland logo. Ashok Leyland is still a major manufacturer here.

Private cars are not the problem – yet

It used to be said in Asia that a symbol of wealth was a sewing machine. As the years passed, the symbol became the bicycle, and then of course the motorbike. But today ownership of a car is the greatest symbol of wealth. 

The cars are seldom very new and thankfully quite small. The rough country roads actually make a better case for the SUV here than in the west, but thankfully they are too expensive – both to buy and to run. They would also be a disaster in the narrow alleyways.

So, the cars tend to be a small Toyota, Kia or locally made Force. Interestingly, the recent Tata Nano, designed as the world’s cheapest small car, was a huge sales flop. The implication that it was super cheap may have given it an image no-one wanted to share.  We only see a tiny number on our travels.

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The Tata company provides an ironic perspective on British manufacturing. This giant Indian conglomerate bought the rusting remains of British steelmaking some years ago. More recently it took over the prouder stories of Jaguar and Land Rover – and made them much more successful. 

Incidentally, the largest truly British car maker is now tiny Morgan, who have not changed the recipe of their lovable and literally half-timbered sports car in 70 years. Hardly the future is it?

Talking of relics, the greatest four-wheeled example in India is the Hindustan Ambassador. Based on the Morris Oxford, this throwback was still being made until a few years ago. Sadly, I only saw a handful on my trip – about the same as the novel Nano!

Non mechanical road users

The Indian roads are a safari in themselves. 

Buffaloes are common in the countryside. But the sacred cow is everywhere from urban alley to motorway. One travelling companion had a painfully close encounter with a cow from behind – which left some bruises. And before you ask… it didn’t warn her by sounding its horn.

Just as the people feed the cows, they also leave food for the many stray dogs. These seem generally healthy, content and friendly as a result. Unlike the cows they are not a threat to cars, and so fall victim more easily. We saw at least two casualties happen during our stay. Cats fare better – simply because they are so rare.

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The monkeys see cars rather differently – as a business opportunity. Humans are seduced by their cheeky demands for food and a quick photo stop soon results in a monkey sat on the bonnet chatting to our driver. He then reaches round to the open side window to grab whatever might be on offer. Bananas are the obvious choice, but a packet of crisps is carried off to the ‘mischief of monkeys’ for bad-tempered sharing. (‘Mischief’ is probably not the right collective noun, but it’s certainly appropriate for these assertive and quick-witted relatives of ours.) Babies hang on to their mums preferring not to be left out.

Mules are genuine beasts of burden here and can be seen carrying staggering payloads. They are particularly useful in the narrow streets and alleys in town, where they are able to carry building materials and take the spoil away.

We saw many a shepherd driving his flock along the country roads – along with goat herding too. Individual and very mild, wild boars wander round with a cheeky look on their smiley faces. 

A visit to India is not complete without encountering the biggest living road user of them all – the elephant. We rode one up to the Amber Fort. They are lovely creatures and we hope they are treated well for their hard work. Given the proximity to the desert, you can expect the occasional camel too. Some of these will be providing camel rides to visitors but others pull carts.

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Above the roads fly huge volumes of pigeons. Unlike London, where pigeons are seen as flying rats and feeding them is forbidden, the Hindu philosophy sees them as evidence of god – and to be fed and cared for. We like them too as they add drama to photos – as long as they can be persuaded to fly in formation around whatever monument we want to photograph. There are lots of vivid green parakeets too – but as Londoners we have recently got used to them back in cold, damp Britain.

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Our minibus windscreen attests to a remarkable lack of flying insects. While it is winter, it is surprising. The summer must be different.

The wandering animal population seem oblivious to traffic and present a real danger to themselves and other road users. We are on holiday so it easy to tolerate them as charming and colourful, but I would take a different view if this was part of the everyday commute. 

On foot in the towns, the challenge of sharing the road is even more vivid. Walking down a narrow street, you feel just how closely the cars rush and brush by.  You have to keep your eyes open for a scooter squeezing between you and the shops. 

The Indian Philosophy of travel

None of these challenges of the road stand a chance against the mystical philosophy of Indian travel. While in the west we descend into road rage, here the common attitude is stoical patience.  No-one gets angry. You see very few bad-tempered road users here; the culture is one of calm acceptance of the many challenges of life – and death.

Your blind corner overtake will be happily accommodated by the driver coming in the opposite direction. There’s no bad-tempered flashing of lights, swearing or fist waving. He doesn’t seem to think you stupid or reckless – he would do the same. Instead he squeezes over to the side or leaves the road altogether if necessary. Drivers have to be assertive to make progress in crowded cities, but no-one acts as if they own the road.

Despite all the animals on the road, there’s surprisingly little actual roadkill. Even on the dual carriageways drivers will virtually come to a complete stop to let a dog cross the road. We saw a farmer herd his goats across both busy carriageways and no one batted an eyelid – including the goats.

In cities where population density is very high, along with the temperatures (for 10 months of the year) this calm and leisurely approach to life is not just vital – take any other attitude and you’ll have a seizure. 

The accepting attitude also extends to foreign travellers – like us. Everyone smiles and children wave and say hello. As we walk along the street some ask for selfies with us. We feel like stars. I hope we end up on facebook. 

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There is begging but given the levels of poverty, it’s not aggressive. Occasionally, we see deformed and disabled people begging. There is no welfare state to help them. 

The worrying future of Indian transport

While I hugely enjoy this Indian road trip, I am worried for the future of a wonderful country – and the planet. A vast and growing population means a lot of journeys – a number that can only grow. Unless the government sponsors major advances in public transport (both buses and trains), the car will remain king. And, alongside it are the little princes – the motorbike and Tuk Tuk. All crowding and polluting and fighting for space.  

Private vehicles will always have their place in the countryside – where the roads are free flowing and public transport can’t get you close enough to home. But in India’s mega cities, the gridlock and smog stifles both trade and the people themselves – whether they are rich or poor. Given India’s digital skills, one answer will come from electricity, not just cleaner electric vehicles but also working in digital ways that require less travel. But power is in short supply, and I’m told power cuts are common.

Ironically, while Australia burns fiercely during the time of our visit, this is the coldest winter in Rajasthan in a century. Until governments fully acknowledge and take action to deal with climate change, we will continue to drive ourselves closer and closer to the end of the road.  The romantic dream of being ‘on the road’ has turned into a nightmare.

Footnote: 

Many thanks to Kishan, our wonderful driver for keeping us safe on this rollercoaster ride. Also thanks to fellow travellers, Cynthia, Trudy and Pemka for their company, their insights, photos – and good humour on cold, foggy mornings. 

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And one last picture…. of the man-made wonder of the world we originally came here to see.

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Published by: David White

A training and development consultant - but often wasting his time talking about cars, clocks, communication and travel. My day job focuses on management training and development. I live in London with my wife Luisa, who is a teacher. Thd children have all left home - leaving me more time for toys.

Categories classic cars, cycling, India, Trucks, Tuk Tuk2 Comments

2 thoughts on “On the road in India”

  1. Hi David…very interesting and great photos….reminds me of the stupidest thing I have ever said in a mini cab….in Turkey.

    ‘The driver is going a bit too fast’…I said to my companions in the back

    ‘You want faster ? ( He was trying to be helpful)

    He then started to use the pavement to avoid the slow cars ( 50 mph +) in front of us …

    We survived…I think that car was a Renault cannot remember the model number …a version of the 25 ?

    Like

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