TRAVEL GUIDE: THE RICKSHAW RUN | INDIA
Day 1 – The Hangover
After planning to skulk out of the launch party at 9.30pm, Si was the last man on the dance floor and we got to bed at 4am. There was a lot of buzz as we all left Jaisalmer at midday but I’d say the novelty of driving a tuk tuk wore off after about ten minutes. Add to that the three hours sleep, hangover and the fact that today was the first day in my three months in India that I’ve had an ‘emergency toilet situation’, well about 20 actually, with sickness and awful stomach cramps. Not even Immodium could stop it and there aren’t that many bushes in the desert.
I don’t think anyone has ever had a drier mouth than me today, totally dehydrated, sick, driving through the desert after an eight hour drinking session. God we did not want to break down in the desert. Then looking behind us, huge sand clouds – we had a race against the sandstorm closing in on us. We lost the race but made it out the other side unscathed, just with sand in every orifice.
We did 184km today and are maybe somewhere near ‘Bap’. We didn’t get lost but that’s not that hard with no planned route or destination, basically we managed to head vaguely east.
As the sun set we desperately looked around for signs of accommodation and we struck gold (well bar the snakes and scorpions). We are staying in these posh tent type things set up on a hill overlooking the desert.
I lie in bed now absolutely exhausted, alarm set for 5.30am but reading stories on the group Whatsapp of other teams breaking down several times today, pistons and sockets going five minutes after starting, engines being taken apart to be cleaned just as the sandstorm hit! We were told that one team last year broke down over 100 times! Gutted for them but so grateful that we at least made it through today without breaking down.
WHY RICKSHAWS ARE CRAP TO DRIVE:
– The clutch is where the brake is on a push bike or scooter and the brake is where the clutch pedal should be on a car, leading to some near misses due to forgetting where the brake is followed by saying: “in my head I was braking”
– Top speed of 35mph – you drive forever and get nowhere
– The windscreen wiper doesn’t move and just sits dead centre on the screen
– Regardless of how much you adjust them you can only see the back of the rickshaw out of the right wing mirror and a tiny bit of road if you lean right back, and you can’t see anything out of the left wing mirror (and there’s no rear view mirror)
– The lights don’t actually light anything up
– There is hardly any luggage space and no doors so braking / going over bumps leaves you scrambling for your stuff and making sure you don’t fall out, not to mention feeling a little bit more vulnerable about people and monkeys trying to get in
– There’s no handbrake (you have to use a brick under the tyre)
– It’s manual start which means there’s a big lever you have to yank 10 times before it starts then another 10 when you stall it (and repeat as necessary)
– You have to pre-mix the right amount of oil with petrol in cans first then funnel it in
Day 2 – The Double Takes
It was still dark at 5.30am and as we had had warnings about it being high season for snakes and scorpions, and given that we were staying in a tent, we decided to wait until it was light to get off the camp beds and get ready.
Needless to say, we weren’t quite as giddy at the thought of driving as we had been yesterday when we still had a leftover supply of rum running through our veins and we were setting off with 90 other rickshaws. We also kept seeing a lot of other rickshaws on the road yesterday, as there was one main road out of Jaisalmer, but today we only passed a couple. Probably something to do with the fact we decided to turn right and head north instead of doing the more direct route through the famous places – Jodhpur, Jaipur and Agra. The fact that we went this other way (for no particular reason) and ended up in really rural India (with pot holes the size of watermelons) could also be the reason we didn’t see any accommodation options after midday. It gets dark around 7pm and literally as soon as the sun sets the roads fill with lorries, a lot of drivers drinking and taking opium to cope with the long journeys and making the roads death traps. Given that we don’t have a pre-planned destination for each day, or 3G, we figured it would be best to stop each day at the first place we see after 6pm. As we hadn’t seen any accommodation all afternoon I thought we should make this 5pm, but by 7pm we hadn’t found anywhere and we kept pushing on an extra 30km to the next town just to find it was not really a town and no one spoke English, had probably never seen a white person (looked scared of us). They also didn’t know what I thought were internationally recognised Charade actions for hotel / room / sleep. We were in the process of making back up plans which basically involved hiding the tuk tuk and sleeping in a field (did I mention it was high snake season?) when we bloody found somewhere.
Up until this point the day had gone well (if not being a tad tedious) with only minor mishaps when potholes or speed bumps weren’t seen in advance and another time when I drove us into a mud ditch because I forgot where the brake was. The one thing you simply never get bored of though are people’s reactions. They vary from frantic waving to almost a horrified look, but almost all come with a double or triple take and mouth agape.
We were just nodding off about 9.30pm when it sounded like someone was trying to bang the door down. Just the police who seem to be raiding the place but they let us go back to bed.
Day 3 – Too Painful to Watch
To: New Delhi
Km: About 300 (including about 30km driving circles around Delhi for THREE hours)
States: Rajastan, Haryana
As we were already pointing north and driving a rickshaw we sort of thought ‘why not head to Delhi?’ So we did. India really is too painful to watch sometimes and the driving is just totally nuts. There really are no rules on the road at all. People drive on both sides and come at you from all angles. Nobody gives way or even looks. We're not just talking on small roads either, on the National Highways at any given point and in any lane you might have a bike/tractor/lorry suddenly coming right for you. Actually there is one vague rule, in whatever situation, if it’s bigger than you it has right of way, and it will keep coming, it's just up to you to get off the road anyway possible. Sometimes a car will overtake another car that’s overtaking a lorry so suddenly you have two things on ‘your’ side of the road coming towards you. This is on top of the billions of people, herds of bison, goats, camels, stray dogs and holy cows just wandering down, or sleeping in the road. People pulling on to the road never ever look or give away and it’s your responsibility to beep them to tell them you’re there and then swerve. We saw four (thankfully minor) crashes today but you can’t really get angry with India. It’s tempting to think that people just don’t care or that they’re ignorant, but for the most part this simply isn’t true. There's just a complete obliviousness and an extreme entrepreneurial spirit. They will get things done whatever it takes. If they need to buy a big office swivel chair, but they only have a motorbike to transport it, then they will carry that office swivel chair on their head while driving.
Of course we reached Delhi at rush hour and if driving a rickshaw (with three days experience) through Delhi wasn’t insane enough, it makes it a lot harder when cars, jeeps and motorbikes spot you then start constantly circling you to wave, have full blown conversations and take pictures. Not distracting at all. The nicest thing though is the appreciation we get from the local auto drivers, they really love the fact we are also driving a rickshaw. The locals have told us that most people that are a bit better off in India wouldn’t even consider travelling in an auto rickshaw, so they are stunned to see Westerns travelling in one - it blows their mind that we are driving it too.
We haven’t got 3G to use the Internet in the day, and haven’t had WiFi most evenings either to plan for the day ahead, so have been working off one fairly crap map and a ‘hit and hope’ strategy. We didn’t think it would be that hard to find a hotel in Delhi but we were wrong. As it got dark, the one thing we didn’t want to do was end up driving through a slum and that’s the next thing that happened (the map's fault!) We also feared it was a dead end as the roads got really bad and at one point we nearly tipped the rickshaw. I dived to the other side on the back seat to rebalance it and in a few minutes we were out of there. We then ended up in the Diplomatic Quarter, and probably due to not wanting to end back up in a slum, we spent the next three hours driving around the same four roundabouts in the posh part of town. Finally we made it out and towards the side of town that we need to be on to exit in the morning. Eventually we drove past a hotel that wasn’t five-star, did a fairly epic u-turn, got a takeaway curry and went to bed.
Day 4 – Happy Hump Day
From: New Delhi
Km: About 393
States: Haryana, Uttah Pradesh
Today is our ‘Hump Day’ – not of driving, but of travelling. We’ve been away 83 days and have 83 to go! That seems totally mad, it feels like we’ve been away forever. We fantasise over this faraway land called ‘England’ where they have organisation, high hygiene standards and M&S Simply Food shops.
We get up at 5.30am and the days feel like years. Today started with a double dose of Immodium for Si who was up in the night. It took us one and a half hours to get out of Delhi despite it being 6am and being on right side of the city with one(?!) straight(?!) road(?!) to exit on. We were meant to be heading to Kanpur but ended up heading to Agra as beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to directions. In general, as long as we’re not pointing north or west then we go with it.
We headed for the ‘Express Highway’ – basically this is the only decent motorway in India. After thirty seconds deliberation as to whether it was appropriate to take the tuk tuk on the equivalent of the M6 toll, we were away. What bliss this road was compared to driving through the towns and cities. There was little traffic and we drove along the hard shoulder which is perfectly acceptable in India. We also found a Subway on this road, it was only a shame our stomachs were in no state to fully appreciate it. I was really enjoying being on the Express Highway and put my headphones in so I could pretend I was in a music video. I didn’t realise that Si wasn’t in the same buoyant mood and he told me later that when I chose this moment to tell him it was our ‘Hump Day’ that he nearly had a mini breakdown.
We felt a little guilty driving straight past Agra, but we have already been to the Taj Mahal a couple of years ago. We kept driving and at about 3pm the stress started setting about where we would stay that night. We never really contemplated that the biggest problem we would have would be finding somewhere to stay and the event organiser’s were extremely good at not giving us any info before the start as to what problems we may encounter so not to ‘spoil the adventure’. At about 4.30pm we decided to u-turn back to the last biggish town that we went past (Etawah). Some local lads let us follow them on their scooter to some grotty hotels – we were so relieved as it was now getting dark, however, we went into four different hotels and a different angry manager at each told us ‘no room at the inn’. We were a bit confused – were they brothels, did they not like the look of us, did they not want women there, was there really no room? Just as we thought we had run out of hotels and we had no idea of what 'Plan B' was, we found a hotel that had a room for us. They told us that a lot of hotels don’t have a licence to accommodate foreigners so that’s why they just told us they were full. Later that evening another rickshaw team checked in. After the panic and stress of trying to find accommodation it was such a boost seeing another team and knowing we were on course with some others despite our Delhi detour.
Day 5 – The Lonely Book of Lies
States: Uttah Pradesh
I really shouldn't say this but... we still haven’t broken down! However, the rickshaw is really starting to sound like it’s about to fall to pieces. It has also lost it’s voice as our horn has all but stopped working and sounds totally pathetic when it does. Driving in India they say you need three things…1. good brakes, 2. a good horn, 3. good luck. Well our brakes were never that good and the horn has gone but we seem to have had plenty of good luck so far. We have our framed picture of Ganesh firmly stuck to the dashboard with electrical tape.
Today we got pulled over by the police for the first time. Our tactics so far for driving past the police have been to try ignore them like you might do a maths teacher poised with a question. You sort of subtlety look the other way, but not enough for them to think you’re not concentrating or doing it on purpose, then you put your foot down (well don’t actually put your foot down because that’s the brake, not the accelerator.) This has worked like a charm so far but today an unmarked car tried to overtake me as I was over taking a lorry. I unfortunately decided to stand my ground and then realised it was the police who pulled me over for ‘speeding’ (this is technically impossible by the way – the speed limit is 60kmph and I think we reached 62kmph once, leaning forwards downhill.) Our second tactic for dealing with the police, or in fact absolutely everybody, is just to give as big a smile as possible (easier said than done with sun and wind cracked lips.) I saw someone on an Indian bus with a tee shirt on that said ‘a smile is the same in every language’ and never was a truer word said. It’s amazing when people look at you in the rickshaw having no idea what to make of it, then you give them a big smile and their eyes grow as wide as dishes and they smile back. Sharing a smile with a stranger really is very lovely and something we Brits are totally crap at, but on this journey you might do this hundreds of times in one day.
Anyway back to the police, unfortunately these police actually seemed to know what they were doing and checked all our vehicle documents, our passports and visas, while taking notes, and then asked for our driving licences. We confidently produced our British car driving licences but they weren’t to be fooled and asked for our international ones. Time to play ignorant, “No, no” we insisted, “this is all we need.” They told us we definitely should have international ones. “But this works in Europe and America” Si said and we continued to smile at them and tell them how much we liked India. In an instant they bid us a 'happy journey' and we were on our way without even having to pull out a 100 rupee bribe.
We were ambitiously heading for Allahabad as we felt like we needed to get a wriggle on and it sounded like a lovely place which we were in need of. Lonely Planet says “Allahabad is a surprisingly relaxed city that offers plenty in terms of sights.” Lies! Allahabad made Delhi look chilled. After a hectic drive into the centre we attempted to leave our terrible hotel for about ten minutes but couldn’t handle the pace so retreated to bed!
Day 6 – Meet Me Halfway
States: Uttah Pradesh
Varanasi was somewhere that Si and I had already ear marked to spend a bit of time in on our six month India trip as it's meant to be one of the holiest places on Earth. We decided that we would do the short trip there in the morning so we’d have the whole afternoon and evening there and then we could decide whether to return again at a later date. This was the morning that we had our first, second and third breakdowns.
When your rickshaw stops working or you run out of petrol anywhere in India, you have an Indian in the back with you before you’ve even stopped moving and about twenty there looking at the engine within thirty seconds. The first time we broke down it was right next to a mechanics but it was 7am and they didn’t open until 10am. But within half an hour, a team of random locals had got us started again. As it still didn’t sound right we thought we best take it to the next mechanic and we thought we might need the carburettor cleaned. This is not an easy thing to communicate to Indian mechanics that don’t speak the same language and they set about trying to ‘fix’ other things. Also, despite having some autos parked out the front we slowly figured out that we had come to a tractor mechanic and now the thing won’t start again. After three hours one of them called the auto mechanic (we think the one that we broke down next to originally) and ten minutes later it was fixed. It cost us a total of £1.70 between all the mechanics and for a photo with the elephant that walked past down the dual carriageway while we were waiting.
Off we went again only to break down an hour later. Another Dutch rickshaw team went past us and stopped. Between us all and comparing what both engines looked like, we figured out that one of the helpful first mechanics had reconnected our fuel overflow to the engine so we detached it (I know, get us, fixing two stroke engines and everything!)
As we now spend 99% of our days sitting or lying down Si is starting to struggle to sit on his backside (quashing his dreams of being a truck driver) and hilariously spends some of his time as a passenger on all fours across the back seat! My bourbon biscuit cushioned bottom seems to be fairing up a bit better.
We approached Varanasi, expecting it to be fairly small and chilled (what with it being the holiest place in India). Idiotic mistake! Never have any expectations in India. Varanasi topped the mental charts far above Delhi and Allahabad and it took us three hours to find the old part of town with the guest houses. By this point my stress levels had almost maxed out but I tried (and failed) to stay calm as did I mention this is the holiest place in India? As dusk set we walked along the Ganges to the burning ghat and watched as families of men brought there dead relations on wooden stretchers, dipped them in the Ganges and then set fire to them. About 300 people are cremated here everyday and there are different sections depending in which caste you are from. I’d like to say we watched this in peace but if you thought the touts were bad at the Taj Mahal then you ain’t seen nothing. People are constantly trying to sell you things, beg or trick you out of money and when you say ‘no’ or don’t fall for it, they start abusing you, sometimes continuing to follow you down the street. Now maybe I could’ve handled this better if I hadn’t had the stress of driving a rickshaw for the past six days, but this really was too much. We considered cremating the rickshaw here!
On top of this we bumped into a few other teams and heard horror stories from the field. Teams that had had fairly bad crashes and one team who saw three guys on a motorbike wiped out and die instantly in front of them. Every night you are very tired, the paranoia sets in about the next day and you over think what might happen. In the mornings when you actually start driving again it all feels ok. Sometimes you are struck by the enormity of the situation but in general you just enjoy the challenge of driving and take it as it comes.
Day 7 – Welcome to Bihar (I hope you have your bullet proof VESts ready)
States: Uttah Pradesh, Bihar
You really have to question what you signed up for when your day starts at 5am with a discussion about splitting up money, hiding valuables and what to do if we get held at gunpoint.
Sophie: “So what’s the plan if we get held at gunpoint?”
Simon: “Just do whatever you’re told!”
Sophie: “Oh…I’m not very good at that!”
Today’s the day we’ve all been waiting for…Bihar. The organisers have warned us about this state and a team got held at gunpoint there a year back. I’ve tried not to work myself up about this and to stay practical, everything will probably be fine, not everyone in Bihar can be a bandit! I’ll read Lonely Planet, they must have nice, diplomatic things to say about it…
“Bihar has a deserved reputation for lawlessness throughout India. Bandit activity such as holding up cars, buses and trains is still a possibility, and Maoist and Naxalites bombings are not uncommon. Although foreign tourists are not specific targets, it’s a good idea to split up your valuables and avoid night travel. Women should take extra precautions throughout the state.”
Oh! Even worse is that there's no option but to drive the entire width of Bihar (unless we go through Nepal, which we have deliberated over again and again but they don’t have the same spare parts if you break down). It will take us three days to get out of Bihar.
As soon as we cross the state border the roads go to pot and our average speed reaches 20kmph. As we drive through some smaller towns we here people shouting at us. As this has happened throughout India I lean out to smile and wave / pose for a picture only to find men chasing us wanting ‘a toll’. We keep driving. At least this gives us a chance to practice our ‘escape driving tactics’ – always leaving enough room to drive around the vehicle in front, always having a couple of options for escape in your head and the best one – the brilliant art of slowing down, pretending that you will stop, and then speeding up again.
By 5pm we are 30km from Patna, the state capital. For the first time I have researched the night before what towns we should aim for that will have accommodation as I do not want to end up driving in the dark in Bihar and minimal tourists means minimal accommodation options. For the last 30km the roads are almost undriveable and it takes us three hours. This is the first time we’ve had to drive in the dark and it starts raining too. We can hardly see and I am trying to navigate us into this huge town, bricking it that we’ll go the wrong way or hit a dead end (which happens more than once). By the time we find a hotel I am totally buzzing and feel like I might pass out. I realise how much adrenalin I must have surging through me. Si is a rock through it all, bandits don’t bother him!
Day 8 – Dominoes
After the adrenalin surge and more nightly toilet stops, I’d only managed three hours sleep. It took us two hours to get out of Patna at 6am with a few scrapes. I honestly thought we were destined to drive on tracks at 6mph for the rest of the journey and at 8am when we hit a tarmac road I broke down - not the engine - I broke down in tears!
If anyone wants to lose weight I can recommend the Rickshaw Run diet. It is falling off. Eating comes way down the priority list and it’s really hard to find places you would consider eating from. One time we stopped at an alright looking restaurant and our chicken rice arrived and I thought ‘I know that smell’. We drive past a fair bit of roadkill and in the heat the stench of the rotting carcasses stay with you for 100 metres. We both took one bite and knew we couldn’t eat it, which was awkward as we had the owners watching over us, checking if their first ever European guests were enjoying the food. We made our excuses, dashed off and pulled over 500 metres up the road to stick our fingers down our throats! A rumour that there was a Dominoes pizza in the town we were aiming for kept us going for another day. A day that was full of more attempted chases by ‘toll men’, seeing the aftermath of a lot of awful crash scenes (head ons, flipped lorries, trucks hanging off bridges) and witnessing more minor bumps. No one ever stops, it makes you angry, fair enough if it’s a bumper, but when you see scooters knock cyclists over and not even flinch, your blood boils.
Physically the driving and constant sitting is starting to take its toll on the bum, neck and back and we’re developing auto-drivers claw from gripping the gears and acceleration. We can now only sit on the right side of the auto in the back as the suspension has gone on the left.
We arrived in town in good time and due to traffic had to walk for an hour to find out if Dominoes was real…it was! By the end of our chicken strip starters we’d almost got over the guilt of indulging in overpriced Western comforts.
Day 9 – Bye BYE Bihar
States: Bihar, West Bengal
After wearing the same clothes for four days we thought we better do some washing but it hadn’t dried overnight so we ended up leaving in wet clothes and trying to fashion some washing lines off the rickshaw.
After 30 minutes driving we were exiting Bhagalphur and reached the bridge to cross the Ganges. Cue big guys with big wooden poles entering stage left, waving for us to stop. Because it's against our better judgement to stop when men are brandishing huge sticks at us, we kept driving. They did not like this and came at the windscreen and side of the vehicle with the scaffolding sticks. We ducked and swerved and just as it was about to hit they pulled back and we got away – pumped with adrenalin and desperately hoping they didn’t have mates on the other side of the bridge.
As we looked back we saw they were stopping all the local auto drivers and ‘taxing’ them. We think they thought that we were a normal auto and when they saw our white faces (or maybe me hanging out wet knickers) they got confused for a second or thought better of coming for us. It’s hard to know whether we should stop or not as the ‘tax’ would probably be about 10p, but once they have you stationary and one of them twigs that as tourists you’ve probably got a few bob, you could be in all sorts of trouble. This is one example of the awful corruption in India, the rich screwing the poor and the police being paid off.
The rest of the day was actually quite pleasant and the morning's events seemed surreal. We had a few more attempted ‘tollings’ by locals trying their luck at official toll booths (where autos don’t have to pay) but in a firm and friendly manner we told them where to go.
It felt amazing to leave Bihar and even more amazing when we cheated on ourselves again at KFC and by checking into a four-star hotel with a pool in Siliguri.
Day 10 – Tranny Bandits
States: West Bengal, Assam
We chose to drive north out of Siliguri and for once we made a good road choice. The terrain changed dramatically almost instantly and we were driving through Nepalese style mountains, tea plantations and national parks. Imagine our surprise then when on one of the dual carriageways two groups of men, one after the other, stood in our path, some of then dressed as beautiful Indian women. We were already familiar with transgender community (hijra) throughout India making a nuisance of themselves by banging drums outside businesses and homes until they are paid to go away, but we had never seen highway tranny bandits! I’ve never been in a situation before where there’s people standing in front of your vehicle and you floor it thinking “they’ll move”, so that was fun, and they did move.
Day 11 – The Last Day (hopefully!)
States: Assam, Meghalaya
Out of the hotels and towns we’ve stayed in in the last two weeks it really would be impossible to choose a worst, but getting out of Bongaigaon was like driving through the apocalypse. There were small fires burning everywhere and we were stopped three times by police with guns who didn’t look like they’d know which end was which.
Our last day’s driving was through the hills and really remote communities. It was a long and challenging last day, especially with no horn and a gear box that wouldn't move from third to second. We saw one set of bandits who were holding a rope up across the road but by the time we reached them they were concentrating on a van that they’d stopped.
It was a weird feeling to reach Shillong, the last 20km seemed to take forever and there was a sense of relief but we also had Stockholm Syndrome that we won’t be driving it again tomorrow.
As we parked up for the final time in Shillong we discovered that we do have a hand brake after all.
WHAT WE TOOK WITH US:
As we had only signed up for this adventure two weeks previously and we were in Sri Lanka at the time, we managed to do zero preparation and decided this was the best way to go. The day before the race started we ran around Jaisalmer and bought a few essentials and it turned out that we didn’t actually need much more:
– baby wipes (10-20 packs should be sufficient)
– portable charger (already had this with us)
– windscreen cleaner
– spray bottle (for windscreen, cooling engine, cooling us)
– 5l petrol can
– bottle for measuring oil
– rope (not needed but we were tempted to use it to hang ourselves at various points)
– spare spark plug (unused)
– funnel and pipe
– electrical tape (there is no duct tape in India)
– picture of Ganesh for dashboard and flower garlands