Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: Into the Hurly-Burly

Travel Stories: In which Jeffrey Tayler pedals more than 1,000 miles along the Grand Trunk Road. Part one of five: setting out.

02.23.09 | 10:42 AM ET

Elephant on Delhi road, IndiaREUTERS/Desmond Boylan

The elephant’s bulbous black eye fixed me in alarm. He stomped and prepared to rear up, flailing his trunk and tusks. Startled out of my daze, I jammed on my handbrakes and skidded zigzagging over the gravel to a messy halt by his columnar forelegs. A truck tore by, tinseled deities dangling from the rearview mirror, just missing me, its driver showering me in Hindi curses. You could say that the elephant feared me more than I feared him, but it wouldn’t be true.  He promptly regained his composure and ambled off. His turbaned master, seated on his shoulders and looking up the highway, never even saw me approach. 

Straddling my bike, I stood there trembling from yet another close call, queasy and sweating, my joints aching from four brutal days of cycling. Entranced by pedaling, my senses dulled by fatigue, and still shaken from having sideswiped a pedestrian earlier in the afternoon, I had almost failed to notice the largest beast in the land. Maybe the elephant’s master should have looked before crossing, but then, in India, where effigies of Kali (the bloody-tongued Hindu goddess of destruction) are dashboard favorites, size alone matters in the ruthless struggle to rule the highway; a cyclist just didn’t count. I wondered, was I really destined to complete, or even survive, a month-long bike trek across the subcontinent, 1,250 miles down the Grand Trunk Road?

There is no more fabled (or frightening) road in India than the GTR—an age-old natural route of conquest, trade and communication leading from the Khyber Pass to the Bay of Bengal. Aryan invaders steered their chariots of war down its primitive precursor more than 3,500 years ago. Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the first Indian empire, transformed it into a guarded royal highway in the fourth century B.C. During the heyday of the Raj, the British, considering the GTR their most prized colony’s major strategic artery, modernized it and garrisoned it with troops from Calcutta to Peshawar.

In his novel “Kim,” Rudyard Kipling called the GTR “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in all the world ... green-arched, shade flecked ... the backbone of all Hind.” Nowadays, India’s most vital highway (National Highways Number 1 and 2, officially) is a decidedly unromantic, two- to four-lane thoroughfare carrying some of the country’s heaviest, most unruly traffic. Beginning in Pakistan, the GTR penetrates India near Amritsar, capital of the fertile Punjab and home to the lotus-domed Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ most sacred shrine. From there, the road wanders southeast across the holiest, most colorful and wildest swath of the country, meandering between the sacred Hindu rivers of the Ganges and the Yamuna to bisect Uttar Pradesh and lawless Jharkhand and Bihar states, land hallowed by the Buddha’s footsteps. The GTR terminates in Calcutta, the once-magnificent capital of the British Raj, but now a metropolis notorious (unjustly, many would rightly say) for its slums, refugees, pavement dwellers and the ministrations of Mother Teresa.

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

India may have acquired the moniker of “rising superpower,” but for travelers, the GTR is the country’s unparalleled highway of peril, a Third-World racecourse of mayhem for trucks, rickshaws, buffalo carts, elephants and cyclists alike, strewn with shattered glass and wrecks, pockmarked with potholes and riddled with craters. In 1999 I had ridden taxis and buses down its length, as enthralled as I was appalled, apprehensive even though ensconced in modern-day chariots of steel and rubber. But the chaos and exotica I saw then coalesced to pose a challenge that, in part, called me back to India now: I wanted to face down my fears and bike the GTR, to make this historic road, in some way, my own. 

I wanted to prove something to myself: namely that I could, at age 45, undergo a taxing test of physical and emotional fortitude in an almost completely alien environment, doing something new (I was not an experienced cyclist), and succeed. Moreover, after recent deaths in my family, I longed to come to terms with mortality and my place in the world. The GTR passes through the homeland of Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Moghul Islam. Biking it would allow me to fathom this hereafter-heavy religious heritage on the riverbanks and plains that witnessed its birth. And the trials of the GTR would, I hoped, teach me to surmount suffering and reach something akin to the spiritual ideal counseled by the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita—to be (in Franklin Edgerton’s masterly translation) “Alike to foe and friend/Also to honor and disgrace/To cold and heat, joy and sorrow.” 

In preparation for my expedition, while still in Moscow (where I live), I ramped up my exercise routine and studied Hindi. Once in India I bought a made-in-the-Punjab Hero Ranger mountain bike, a sturdy, red nine-speed that I outfitted with panniers for supplies and a rear rack onto which I could strap a knapsack. The bike felt twice as heavy as its American equivalent, but at least it had gears (most Indian bikes don’t), and, being of local manufacture, would be easy to repair en route. I chose to travel in the fall, once the monsoon had ended and the temperatures cooled.

But three days before the elephant incident, I had gotten off to a clumsy start in Amritsar. I found myself at the edge of town, where water buffaloes grazed in reedy fields. There, under a whiteout sky, a two-way macadam, unmarked and sun-warped, stretched eastward. I launched myself into the fray, overtaking plodding tractors, facing oncoming cyclists as challengers, engaging them in duels of chicken, starting at horn-beeps and ignoring shouts to clear the way. It worked; I cut a path for myself. Often from passing truck cabin windows betel-nut sputum showered down red and frothy, forcing me to swerve and sally. (North Indian men chew a paste made with the nut as a stimulant and spit out the crimson pulp, sending earthward a spew resembling the dysentery-induced flux of bloody diarrhea.) Pump-pump-pump the pedals, move-move-move!  Just keep moving! 

As the morning wore on, the duels transmogrified into a running battle, jarring and hurly-burly, fraught with near misses, amid blinding assaults of exhaust and rippling volleys of dust. Skirting dead dogs and crushed goats, I tried to keep my eyes locked ahead, my ears trained aft, sentient to threat. Animal carts and cattle herds hogged the shoulders, forcing me into main-lane competition with kingly trucks and buses, their cabins arrayed with tiara-frames of glittering steel, their multifocal horns flourishing like trumpets. They barreled along at 50, 60 mph, scattering passenger cars and autorickshaws, passing one another two, even three, at a time.  For these drivers, cows alone were sacred.

Toward noon the sun turned golden and the haze lifted, revealing the glorious blue firmament beyond; rows of trees shade-flecked the polluted highway. Sikhs wearing kilts and red stockings led processions along the shoulder, blowing bagpipes and pounding drums, adding musical clamor to a cacophony of revving engines and rumbling tires. I began to adjust and even to relax, but then, just after the shoulders sloped away into drainage ditches, turning the GTR into a two-lane tarmac of no mercy, a sign popped up—ACCIDENTAL ROAD! NO OVERTAKING!—and beyond it, by a crowd of dumbstruck villagers, a 16-wheeler lay flipped over, its cabin (and certainly its driver) crushed in a ditch. The ambulance crew on the scene squatted in the dust with nothing to do.

I sailed past them, but a few miles farther on, by a mangled bike and jackknifed truck, other villagers were dragging from the road a bloodied old man in a torn white robe, his eyes and mouth stretched open in mute horror, his limbs twitching. With one false move on my part, or a single inauspicious jerk of the wheel by the daredevils always at my heels, I could, like so many before me, end up as smorgasbord for carrion crows.

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.

2 Comments for Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: Into the Hurly-Burly

Hal Amen 02.23.09 | 2:51 PM ET

Great intro! Reminds me of my first cycling tour along Vietnam’s Highway 1, only this sounds about 100 times more intense. Can’t wait for the next installment.

Roger 02.23.09 | 3:18 PM ET

I am really looking forward to reading about this trip!

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