The information here is but a brief overview of India and the areas visited by us for more specific information see Tours. In order that you get the very best from your trip, and to get a deeper flavour of the country, we’d recommend a little further reading and have listed some of our favourite books at the foot of the page.
At 3,287,000km/sq, India is the world’s seventh largest country, and with around 1.1 billion inhabitants is the second most populous. Representing approximately the size of ‘old’ Western Europe, it is equally diverse in every way, from social customs, food, clothing and religion, to a physical geography that takes in just about every landscape one can imagine. Extending in latitude from around 12º North at sea-level on its southerly tip, to 43º North near 8000m at the northern boundary, India feels less like a country than a continent in its own right.
Just as varied as India’s topography is its climate, with temperatures influenced by its vast north-south span and huge variances in elevation. Of no less impact are the monsoons, rain-laden winds that dump most of the subcontinent’s precipitation in the space of a few months mainly in June, July and August, depending on region. By running our tours seasonally and at differing altitudes, we manage to avoid most of the rain and likewise the blistering summer heat that can hit 50ºC on the central plains.
On our southern tours in Kerala we spend much of our time in the mountains, where temperatures are comparable with a fine summer’s day in the UK. The highest temperature you’re likely to encounter (exceptionally) is around 36ºC on the Keralan coast, the lowest around 12ºC in hill stations on clear nights. In Goa/Karnataka we also spend much time on elevated plateaux and similar temperatures are to be expected.
In Rajasthan the average daily temperature is likely to be in the high mid-twenties during our touring season. At night temperatures will tend to be in the high teens, but can drop as low as 10ºC in the desert.
The Himalayan climate is, as you’d expect, somewhat cooler. Daytime temperatures at lower elevations can be as high as 28ºC though on average you’re likely to be riding in a range of 12-15ºC. Exceptionally temperatures can fall to near-freezing over the highest passes, especially in the early mornings.
POPULATION & RELIGION
As mentioned, there are an awful lot of people in India nearly one in five humans on the planet lives here and religion plays an enormous role in their everyday lives. Some 80 per cent of this throng is Hindu, a religion encapsulating the worship of thousands (some say millions) of deities. Hinduism has given rise to the ‘caste system’, a social structure wherein one is born into a certain position in life and expected to remain there. Caste also has religious connotations that stretch far into everyday life. The ‘untouchable’ lower castes, known as Dalits or Harijans, cannot mix with or marry people of higher castes (and vice versa). Although discrimination by caste is illegal in India, these traditions are too strong to break in many communities.
Next most numerous by religion are India’s Muslims, with around 11 per cent of the population following Islam, which was introduced in the 16th century, both passively and through Mogul invasion. Although there have been many acts of horrific communal violence since India’s independence in 1948, today India’s communities largely exist in a state of religious tolerance.
Christian communities have existed along India’s west coast (Kerala and Goa mainly), for many centuries. The Apostle St Thomas is said to have brought Christianity to the Malabar Coast in 52AD, though most scholars would suggest that the movement of people due to trade from the Middle East brought the religion from Syria in the 4th century. Subsequently the Portuguese brought their brands of Catholicism to Goa in the late 15th century, while French, British and Dutch colonists founded branches of their own churches over the following four centuries. While some 75 per cent of India’s near-20 million Christians live in South India, numbers are growing elsewhere as lower ranking Hindus convert in order to escape the caste system.
In the late 15th century Guru Nanak founded Sikhism in the Punjab, north-west India. His new religion is said to have been an attempt to fuse the best elements of Islam and Hinduism, rejecting the caste system and introducing the notion of the One God (or it could be argued, reasserting the prominence of Hinduism’s One God, Brahman). You’ll see turban-toting Sikhs throughout much of India, although more so in the north, and they hold the key to the popularity of the UK’s Indian restaurants Punjabi cuisine.
Although Buddha found enlightenment in India, his teachings have a relatively small following here 6-7 million souls. Although there are enclaves of Buddhist refugees (having fled their native Tibet to escape the Chinese invasion) in South India, the vast majority of Indian Buddhists live in the Himalayan regions, again many of them refugees from Tibet or migrants from Nepal. Our tours into the Spiti Valley travel through a mainly native Tibetan-Buddhist culture, as witnessed by the many ancient and arresting monasteries and stupas seen along the way.
India also has many minority religions and communities – Zoroastrians (Parsis) from Persia and Jains being among the more prominent. There are also many ‘tribal’ sects, which remained independent of Hinduism for millennia, but are now being drawn into the mainstream religions. The tribals are usually found in more remote regions and their colourful influences can be observed in the mountains during our southern tours.
Although India’s cities are bustling with life, apparently to the point of bursting, nearly three-quarters of folk live in rural populations, 60 per cent of whom survive on farming. Wages for the masses can be cripplingly low, many Indians surviving on around one USD per day. Great advances are being made in bringing education, power and other infrastructure to India’s poorer people. However, while the economy is growing at a very high rate, this additional wealth is slow to filter down the social order.
‘India’, in many westerners’ minds, conjures images of poverty on a cataclysmic scale, thanks in part to books and films that focus on the more extreme elements of the country. But while poverty certainly exists on a scale you won’t see even in Peterborough, it is less prevalent than popular myth might suggest certainly in most of the states we visit. India’s poorest areas in terms of income, education and literacy are to the north-east, in states like Orissa and Bihar, where many people still live a feudal existence. There are areas of rural Rajasthan that are also extremely poor, with high rates of infant/mother mortality, malnutrition and a lack of educational opportunities.
Even if you don’t see it, in India the deprivation’s still there and you’re not helping anyone by staying away. If you want to help there are many ways to do so, from donating to a recognized charity, or sponsoring a child’s education, to handing alms to beggars. If you choose to do the latter, please don’t while out on a ride, as we use regular stops and they will soon become the scenes of stampedes.
India, as an autonomous state, has only existed since 1947. Prior to that, ‘British India’ encompassed what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (East Pakistan). For two millennia, since the first Indus Valley Civilisation, the Indian Subcontinent has been divided into numerous smaller states and civilisations, power shifting due to internal struggles and invasions. India’s history is far too rich and complicated even to begin to outline here, but you’ll see the legacies of dozens of historical cultures and sub-cultures around every corner. It’s a big part of what makes a visit so endlessly fascinating.
When visiting any foreign country, the change in diet can bring on minor stomach upsets and India is no exception. A few simple steps can help minimise the chances of this happening. We recommend that customers drink only packaged, sterilised water which is always available on tour. The eateries we recommend are tried and tested by us and we monitor the hygiene of hotels that we use. Our medics have a huge amount of experience in all fields and always carry a wide range of medicines to deal with tummy upsets and any other malaise from which you might suffer.
Another area of concern, though only on our Himalayan adventures, is altitude sickness. Again, we have a great deal of experience in preventing and dealing with any problems deriving from altitude. We allow a suitable acclimatisation period and our medics carry oxygen and medication to alleviate symptoms should they arise.
For general advice on inoculations, talk to your GP.
ROADS AND RIDING
Surfaces can vary from perfectly smooth tarmac to rubble, dust and sand. Potholes are to be expected on most back roads; animals, hawkers and cyclists wander everywhere with varying levels of awareness and stability. Expect the unexpected at all times. There is nothing so formal as a Highway Code and little by way of driver training (‘buying’ a licence is relatively easy), but after some time you will start to recognise a system. This can roughly be equated to big-man-hits-boy-hits-dog.
Size matters. Unless there happens to be an army tank in the vicinity, trucks have right of way in all circumstances, then buses, smaller trucks etc. You will fit in just above a bicycle, but below a three-wheeler. Passenger-carrying vehicles will stop in the middle of the road to deposit tired travellers, auto-rickshaws will swerve madly into your path and dogs will attempt to end their miserable lives under your tyres. Rarely will any manoeuvre be indicated. Your road awareness will go up dramatically during the course of an Indian adventure.
India has 18 official languages and hundreds of unofficial ones. The official tongue, Hindi, is spoken by about a quarter of the population. Where English is spoken (widely in the south), it is usually coloured with a heavy ‘Hinglish’ accent. It is also only understood with a thick Indian accent. Hence it pays to adopt a Peter Sellers (Millionairess) or Michael Bates (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) patter. Try to pronounce place names in as many ways as you can.
Few rural Indians can read maps. They will never say they don’t know and will point anywhere rather than shrug. Even when they indicate a direction, you probably won’t understand because Indians don’t point, they wave from side-to-side, or sometimes up-and-down, depending on the phase of the moon and the price of mangoes. Also confusing to visitors is the archetypical Indian head wobble-cum-wibble. This means either ‘yes’, ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, or more likely, ‘as you like’. Luckily this will not be an issue while riding as you will always have a staff member to follow.
International telephones are easy to find and a few places in which we stop have internet access. It is also possible to source a pre-paid Indian SIM card for mobile phones, which will substantially reduce your bills over a fortnight.
Indian Standard Time (IST) is five-and-half hours ahead of GMT; four-and-a-half ahead of BST. The word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ is the same in Hindi and Indian Peoples’ Time (IPT) is anything between 15 minutes and 15 hours later than the time that your watch might suggest.
India is very good value. Cash can be changed at airports, some banks and in many places you’ll also find cash-points. If you’re likely to be changing money back into Sterling on departure, then be sure to keep cash-point receipts and encashment certificates, as you’ll be unable to do so without them.
Today 1 GBP is about 95 INR
India is rightly famed for its rich and diverse wildlife. On our southern tours you can expect to see myriad beautiful birds, deer and even wild elephants from the bike. At some of our overnight stops, wildlife safaris can be arranged and customers have seen tigers, leopards, bears and much more. In the Himalayas there is also rich bird life, plus wild ass, blue mountain sheep and marmots.
Background reading on India that we like:
Liberty or Death by Patrick French
The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple ISBN:
City of Djinns by William Dalrymple ISBN: 0-00-637595-2
No Full Stops in India by Mark Tulley ISBN:
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Tahir Shah ISBN: 0-14-028571-7
The Life Of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer ISBN: 0-00-638887-6
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Chasing the Monsoon by Alex Frater
Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon