Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: Deliverance

Travel Stories: In which Jeffrey Tayler pedals more than 1,000 miles along the Grand Trunk Road. Part five of five: journey's end.

02.27.09 | 10:12 AM ET

After Varanasi, the Ganges veered north, and the Grand Trunk Road south. Still haunted by Manikarnika, I pedaled down the GTR onto the jungle plains and past the coal-chunk hills of Bihar state, a hardscrabble land even by Indian standards. Runt dogs with hanging udders and pellagra hides lurked by the roadside, like twitchy, oversized rats. The harsh light bleached color from the scene, casting the world in black-and-white relief.

I grew worried about my safety; Bihar, after all, gave us the word “thug,” as in the roving sect of Thugs, who, in the British era, chatted up travelers, won their trust and then strangled and robbed them ritualistically. Colonial authorities eventually ended their savagery, capturing thousands of them and hanging hundreds. These days caste warfare, criminal gangs and bandits keep Bihar in the news. 

Finding no hotel the first night, I put up in a gas station. “Not to worry, sir,” the owner told me. “Bihar is peaceful, the land of the Buddha.” My raised eyebrows prompted him to add, with a jingoistic head waggle, “and I have five rifle-armed men on patrol to protect us!” I drifted off to sleep watching camouflaged guards stalk the cracked walkway by the pumps.

Noon the next day found me rattling through dust and glare along the sidewalk of an endless wobbly steel and concrete bridge, nervously glancing over the waist-high railing - all that kept me from an impromptu rendezvous with Yama—down at the sandbars of the Son River. 

Just ahead a red-white plastic ribbon of warning fluttered on the pavement, and then, beyond it ... the sandbars below! I squeezed the brakes and almost flew over the handlebars, swerving, barely missing a 3-foot-square hole in the bridge. A truck thundered past, shaking the structure so hard that pebbles bounced off into the abyss. 

Trembling, I turned away from the gap, adjusted my helmet, and pedaled on around it.

MORE ON INDIA’S WILDEST HIGHWAY: Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Cycling Across India | Video: Jeffrey Tayler: ‘I Was Getting in Over My Head’ | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Why He Started Traveling | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on His New Book, ‘Murderers in Mausoleums’ | Slideshow: Bicyclists in India

‘Call Me!” said the smiling brunette beauty in a low-cut halter top, holding a Reliance cell phone to her ear. Other adverts pasted along the road to Bodh Gaya’s Mahabodhi Temple offered me a chance to order a ‘70s-style Bollywood Romeo suit, bouffant hairdo not included; book an STD (“standard trunk dial,” or long-distance call); or feast on bowel-liquefying street grub. 

I ignored these temptations and made straight for Mahabodhi Temple’s walled-off grounds and its obelisk, which rises 180 feet above the Bihar plain. At the obelisk’s base grows a pipal tree, gnarled and gargantuan. In 623 B.C., after six years of austere wandering and pondering the causes of mankind’s woes, a prince named Gautama Siddhartha took a seat beneath an ancestor of this tree, passed through a night of meditation and demonic torment, and arose at dawn the Buddha (the Enlightened One), with a concrete plan to conquer suffering and reach Nirvana without recourse to the supernatural.

In the soft sunlight of early morning, I sat amid a scattering of lotus blossoms across from the pipal, not far from Tibetan monks chanting in eerie nasal tones. For the first time since leaving Amritsar a month before, I relaxed, free from peddlers, beggars, the GTR’s racket and the burdensome eyes of wary villagers. Round and round the temple ambled saffron-robed monks; others, enacting bizarre prostrations, slinked like caterpillars in knee-pads and felt gloves across the marble esplanade; in various adjoining shrines votaries made merit, lighting candles and intoning hymns to tiny portraits of the Enlightened One. The Tibetans, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans (who predominated) looked cheerful, even irreverently so. The only serious, conscientiously ascetic Buddhists about were Westerners, who assiduously adjusted their robes or furrowed their brows as they spun their prayer wheels.

Blissfully relishing Mahabodhi’s tranquility, I opened my copy of the Dhammapada (rendered into English from Pali by Eknath Easwaran) and lit upon a line. “Look on this world as a ... mirage; then the King of Death cannot even see you! Is it not like a painted royal chariot? The wise see through it.” All at once, I perceived something wonderful, revivifying, even transcendental, in my gritty, two-wheeled traversal of India. For almost a month, I had dodged trucks and weaved among flatulent draft animals, not knowing where I would find my next meal or spend the coming night, but this uncertainty energized me. The painted chariots that had frightened me before Varanasi now hardly registered as they shot past; rather, they served to rivet my attention on the here and now, to enforce a thorough absorption in the present moment, a meditation of sorts. I had learned to react without fear, and I was involuntarily heeding the Dhammapada’s injunction to make my mind “serene, unaffected by good and bad.” This very calm quickened my reaction time and made me safer. 

So often, India seemed either a land of timeless poverty, whose inhabitants benefited little from the enlightened scriptures of their ancestors, or it was a baubly charade, as callow and shallow as a Bollywood epic. The world’s glitter and dross had changed form since the days of the ancients, but the messages of the Dhammapada held true. I felt blessed. By what or whom I did not know. 

As I bounced across India on the last leg of my journey, the air heated up and the sun closed in. Often alone on the now well-paved road, four-laned and divided, I ascended the jungle highlands of Jharkhand, awed by the black mountains rising in the mists, weak with hunger from an enforced vegetarian diet. I then began three days of blissful descent into the rice-paddied flatlands of West Bengal state, passing people cheerfully bathing with their buffalo in algae-clogged canals. I returned their enthusiastic waves and shouts of welcome, and, as the oppressive mood of the Gangetic Plain lifted, I sensed the steady approach of my own temporal moksha. 

Five days out of Bodh Gaya, as evening drew on, a policeman stopped me at a tollbooth. His club hanging at his side, he shook my hand, smiling, intuiting, I believe, that I had arrived from afar. I tried to ask, “How much longer to, to ... ” but my voice cracked with fatigue and thirst and emotion.

“Calcutta? It is just ahead, sir! Welcome!”

We shook hands again, and I proceeded down the highway. With little warning, palms became slums; snoozing cattle, pavement dwellers sleeping in roadside exhaust fumes; flocks of goats, swirling gaggles of rickshaws; and stacks of hay, burning heaps of rubbish. 


A violent moil of trucks and carts swept me along into the murky dusk, and I made for the twin suspension towers of Howrah Bridge, Calcutta’s supreme landmark. Moksha was mine at last, if only for now.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

7 Comments for Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: Deliverance

Haifa Mahabir 03.04.09 | 3:18 PM ET


James C 03.06.09 | 3:26 AM ET

I’ve just read your piece in Speaker’s Corner “How to kill yourself making a living”. I find it eerie that I should be stumbling on this piece as I nodded and agreed with every word, letter and comma and full stops as I devoured them. You see I have just started out as a writer, a travel writer hopefully.  I’m a new reader to World Hum and had followed you India’s trip with fascination, and was curious as to what you had to say. For the past few weeks, I had been doubting myself, am I up to it? An intense soul searching of sorts as I stood on the forked road ahead of me. Which route should I take next? I had already made a decision, and thus reading your pieces especially Speakers’ Corner had inspired me tremendously.  Every word you wrote was what I want to hear and learn!  Thank you for unselfishly sharing of such passionate thoughts.

JP 03.07.09 | 4:38 PM ET

I am glad that you took time out of your busy schedule to visit India. I am originally from India ( West) and currently live in USA. I like to consider myself as traveler than tourist since I love the exploring portion of travel. I have traveled many parts of USA, Central America, Carribean, South America, Middle East, and India(including all the places you mentioned). After reading your travel stories of India, I am extremely disappointed due to following:

1) You sound like a tourist than traveller/explorer. You did not provide any positive or constructive viewpoints. All of your points include, pollution, populations, dirty people, stinky places, etc.  I agree that this part of India is not the best but still there are many things to point out regarding the culture, traditions, food, people and their kindness. Not all people are bad, they might be poor but have rich heart.
2) I am not sure if you had a goal in mind but sounded like you quit on your bycycle exploration because you wanted to make sure you get back for Christmas.
3) Yes, India is dirty, poor, and stinky. I think this is a known fact to many people in the world. Poeple who don’t like these things don’t spend their precious time visiting it. Others do realize that even though it is all of the above, they still want to explore it and enjoy it. You on the other hand looked like you were not aware of all these things before you went and continued complaining about it at every single spot.
4) I live in USA. it is extremely clean and neat but whenever I travel to any foreign/developing countries, I leave my “all perfect” attitude behind and enjoy whatever comes along. That is respecting it.  I don’t travel to complain about how bad it is compared to my “all perfect” lifestyle but rather enjoy the local cultures, traditions, food, people, and the country itself.
5) If at all possible, could you please stop traveling to third world countries. You can obviously visit them and book the “all-inclusive” resorts so that you don’t have to go through the traffic, pollution, dirtiness, etc. I believe India also offers quite a few options where you can stay at 4-star hotels and enjoy Taj Mahal with great views. I prefer you take that so that you don’t have to suffer and make your journey back on time to celebrate Christmas. let me know if you need any help booking such trips..

If you believe I am harsh on you then you try to point out in your journey how many negative things you mentioned and how many positive things you have said. You story almost looks like you were dragged into it from the beginning..

Roger 03.12.09 | 1:26 PM ET

Jeffrey has merely written about the journey from his perspective, and I believe he did an admirable job. Whatever mode of transport he uses is his right, and he has chosen some rather different modes in the past. He doesnít want to write about the same stuff that many others have written about already. Donít be critical of him unless you have done the exact same trip, the exact same way. The travel writer does not merely edit out all the negative and only write about the positives. If he were writing about bicycling across the USA, I would expect the same candidness, and honest descriptions from him. That is the only way to put the reader in the place of the writer, to experience the highs and lows of his journey.

JP 03.14.09 | 12:36 AM ET

Roger, you see, I would agree with you if you had some findings such as I provided AFTER reading Jeffery’s journey. Irregardless of his own perspective or not, and I am not sure if he can right the “same stuff” because if you have been to India then you would know noone can experience same thing. So I wasn’t expecting “same things”. Again, if you READ my opinion, I will agree that it is bad and I never asked him to write only about the positives. I am not quite sure if you read his journey or my comments because if you did, you would be able to provide some findings like when you mentioned that he wrote the “highs of his journey. Could you identify them ? When you mentioned that I suggested to only write the positives, could you point that out from my comments.

FYI: If you lived in country and have been to same places, and have used the same method of transportation, you would not experience the same thing. I, have been to 80 % of his journey, have used bicycle as mode of transportation, and have experienced few of the lows that he had mentioned. Even I have mentioned them as FACTS.  But my entire comment was to suggest that if you knew all the negative things about a place and you don’t like it then there is no need to go there and mention them again or at least typically people don’t do it.

Roger, I suggest you READ first and present the findings either from him journey or my comments and they counter-offer or sit back and enjoy your travel by reading someone else’s journey..

Roger 03.16.09 | 1:53 PM ET

Well, I did read the articles, and the comments, and I think you are over analyzing a bit. I was trying to explain to you what the travel writing genre is about. I’m probably not as well traveled as you, and certainly not as much as Jeffrey. I accept his style for what it is, and I think there were positives in his account. Your suggestion that he avoid certain places and modes of transport for a more comfortable mode is just a bit off base. I mean, why would he want to do that? You are putting him down for doing something he is good at, and finding fault with his style. What? A writer is not supposed to develop his own style, now?

Rheinhart 03.28.09 | 7:36 AM ET

I must say i basically agree with JP on this one (if not on all levels), even though it may seem like he’s being overly defensive. It’s not that Jeffrey Tayler is being ‘racist’, exactly. I wouldn’t put it this way. It’s more that he is indeed actually quite negative about his whole experience. The issue here, for me, is not whether he has the ‘right’ to his impressions and all that. Sure he has. So what? It’s still obvious from the spirit of his comments, that he sees things in a particularly gray, dingy and unprepossessing way. And i say that as someone who’s done her share of living and traveling in the Middle East and Asia, where one does indeed come up against dirt, rotting animal carcasses by the roadside, dusty roads and stinky open sewers. The point is, that among all the varied mosaic of impressions and encounters on a (taxing) trip like his, the unprepossessing ones need not be the main ones. There is almost always a counterbalance to dinginess and dirt, something striking, or happy, or luminous, or unique….and this doesn’t really come across in his writing. THat’s what makes me feel, that emotionally and spiritually, he kind of bit off more than he could chew on this one. Without putting to doubt his obviously constructive intentions. I’d say one needs a wider, and dare i say, more positive perspective to get (and communicate) the best out of such an experience.

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