Welcome to India India is nothing if not a case study of extremes. From the moment you step out of the terminal at Indira Gandhi International Airport, you sense that something is setting you a bit off balance. It could be the fact that most flights arrive in the middle of night and the smoky fog lingering over the city creates an ethereal aura. It could the intermingled brew of new smells that waft through the air as you make your way to the taxi rank. Or maybe even the dead of the night goings on you spy from your taxi window as you wind through the darkness to your hotel. Give it time: things will get weirder but that, of course, is why you came. India is regarded as one of the world’s most exotic destinations for many reasons. Its mosaic of cultures and languages, its rich, extensive history, its beautiful architecture, its festivals, cuisines, religions and peoples. For this and every other reason you can fathom, India is one of the greatest countries on Earth to experience on a motorcycle. Yes, it does get a bit crazy out there sometimes. In fact, riding a bike there is often regarded as the greatest video game ever invented. Fortunately, you have come this far so you’re obviously the adventurous type. If you have not ridden there yet but have the idea planted like a splinter in your mind, your epiphany will come when you are chugging your way through the Thar Desert on your trusty Royal Enfield Bullet. It is then that you will crane your neck upward at the Western faces looking down at you from the windows of their air-conditioned luxury bus and realize that while they are watching a movie of India, you are playing a starring role. Getting Ready Flights Non-stop flights from Europe to Delhi, Mumbai and Kathmandu abound and usually take 7-8 hours. Cheaper flights can be had with stopovers in the Middle East, ie Adu Dhabi, Bahrain and Dubai. North Americans have a much longer ride with East Coasters and Mid-Westerners usually flying via major European hubs like London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Flights from these origins to Europe usually take 8 hours. West Coasters have the option of flying via Europe or Asia, ie China, Korea, Taipai or Japan. And while the trip is long – your are literally flying to the other side of the world – the Asia routes have the advantage that most arrive and depart during daylight hours instead of in the middle of the night. Flying to Asia takes 10-12 hours from Los Angeles, Vancouver and San Francisco and the continuing flight to India takes another 4-5 hours. Visas Citizens of most Western countries can now travel to India on an e-Visa. This super-convenient process is worlds better than the old paper based, spend-4 hours-in-your-local-Indian-consulate nightmare. The eVisa is applied for on-line and usually approved within 24 hours. Notice! If you use an e-Visa, you must go to the e-Visa line at immigration when you arrive. I’ve seen many e-Visa folks wait in line for 30 minutes only to be sent to another line when they reach the immigration officer. The blow-ups are always quite entertaining. Travel Insurance Travel insurance is highly recommended and in fact is mandatory for most motorbike tour operators. Companies such as Allianz, American Express and others offer this coverage which ensures that, should you become ill or take a tumble, all medical and, if required, repatriation expenses will be covered. For about $100, it’s worth every penny. Vaccinations This is one of those items that is totally up to the individual. Some of us have been traveling around every corner of India for decades without ever once getting jabbed and with no negative consequences. Others will want to make sure that they have protection against every possible contractible ailment. There are, however, two treatments you should take advantage of. For these heading up to Ladakh, taking a course of altitude sickness tablets is a good preventative strategy. Some people are more susceptible than others so it’s best not to take any chances. Take your pill. The second is malaria tablets. If you are heading to southern India where dense jungles abound, eg Kerala, this is a simple safeguard in mosquito-prone areas. Gear Another personal decision. As a person who has ridden around India in Cordura, waxed cotton and leather jackets, I can conclude that all of them to have their strengths and weaknesses. Leather provides the best protection in a spill but wear it in Rajasthan when it’s 105F /40C and you will wither. Waxed cotton breathes but sucks up dirt like a sponge and can’t be washed. Adventure touring jackets from Dainese, Klim, Frank Thomas, Revit and the like don’t score the highest points for character but they are very practical. Many have a Gore-Tex liner so are waterproof, they usually have built-in, removable armour, and are modular so you can reconfigure as conditions require. Helmets are up to the wearer but if safety is your priority, a full-face model is your best bet. Yes, you may feel a bit like your sitting in tiny car but your head will be protected from impacts coming from all sides. If cool is your thing, a half face helmet and some vintage goggles will get the job done. On the Road The Bikes What image do the words Royal Enfield conjure in your mind? Nostalgia? Heritage? Robustness? Weaponry? Well you would be correct on all fronts. Although the first bike was built in Britain in 1901, this isn’t a history lesson. The Enfields that are ubiquitous on the roads of India are of the Madras Motors era, an effort from 1955 where the brand and its ethos were licensed to be built in Madras, India (now known as Chennai). Enfields are intentionally simple machines. No computers, sensors, titanium or carbon fiber. They are based on the same basic layout defined in 1955: A single cylinder air-cooled carbureted engine, steel tube frame, spoke wheels, chain-driven final drive, a single disc brake up front and a drum at the rear. Sound primitive? Well that’s the way it should be. Unenlightened riders may spit their dummies over the antiquated engineering but once you ride one in India, you get it. Speed, agility and fancy-pantsness is of no value on Indian roads. What counts is tank-like robustness and the ability to get one fixed in every village in India. The Bullet 350 & 500 and the dual-sport Himalayan will happily satisfy all the subcontinent can throw at you. Riding in India This subject has been covered in one of our past articles entitled Ten Principles to keep you (kind of) Sane and Safe on the Road in India but to summarize, riding a motorcycle can India can be a bit overwhelming. To be honest, walking down the street can be overwhelming when you first arrive. Doing it successfully really comes down to one simple concept: don’t drop your guard, regardless of how comfortable you may be feeling. Because it is exactly at that point when you take a breath and let your mind relax that camels, oxen, rickshaws, goats, cyclists and 20 ton trucks conspire to jump from the ether and shear off your path. Riding here does require solid riding skills but don’t let this put you off if you are new to riding. Much more in demand will be your ability to process and compartmentalize the sensory kaleidoscope the pelts you over mile after exciting mile. But rest assured: after 12 days on the road, you too will be calling it the best video game in the world. The Food Some people hate it. Most people love it. The food of India tends to be pigeonholed into a large bucket called ‘curries’. Obviously it’s much, much more than that. Each region has its own portfolio of flavours, from the artist’s palette on a plate from the north called thali, to the rich, fiery coconut fish curries of Kerala. The best advice here is to be adventurous since that, in actual fact, is what you seek. The capsaicin levels (chili spiciness) can be managed to your liking and you will without a doubt leave the country as a lover this beautiful cuisine. If you do, and we all do, crave the occasional western dish, make sure it is ordered in a hotel restaurant that caters to these tastes lest your let down be a hard one. You have been warned. Money & Communications The world for the modern global wanderer had been made infinitely more pleasant by the proliferation of ATMs. There is barely a town in India or Nepal where one cannot be found. They may not always work so plan ahead and grab 10,000 rupees (about $150) before you strike out. And one more tip – don’t forget to advise your bank of your plans or you may find your card unceremoniously blocked. On the comms front, almost all hotels and even guesthouses have wifi these days. Mobile phones are a different story. The best approach, if you have an unlocked phone, it to buy a SIM card on arrival. These are available at kiosks in the arrivals halls of major airports and in all towns and cities. If you have a locked phone, you can contact your mobile service provider about packages for foreign travel. Please bear in mind that this is a much more expensive option that a local SIM card. Health & Safety As mentioned earlier, a traveler’s insurance policy is highly recommended for anyone engaging in any risky activities overseas. If your riding skills are a bit rusty, grind off some of it get riding! If you don’t own a bike, rent, borrow or steal one and get yourself to a comfortable state again. On the question of safety, India has had the dubious distinction of being frequently featured in the worldwide press for violence toward women. It is indeed a deplorable scourge that its society is fighting hard to address. As a male who has traveled to every corner of the country over the last 25 years, I can say that I have never feared for my safety, ever. Sadly, I cannot say the same about many of the cities I have lived in / traveled to in the US. Of course, I know many women who have had very different experiences in India. The precautions will seem obvious to most women – ignore places that give off a creepy vibe, try not to travel alone, dress modestly, etc. The fact is that India sends many conflicting signals: Homosexuality was only decriminalized last year, yet it’s totally normal to see straight guys holding hands while they stroll down the street. Women wearing revealing tops or a short skirt may be harassed by dudes on a corner, but Bollywood stars preen on the big screen wearing next to nothing. In India as everywhere, common sense is your best guide.