Nainital to Haridwar: the challenges of Indian road journeys

The journey from Nainital to Haridwar was another long day of riding, though slightly shorter, and generally less eventful than the previous slog. So, instead of talking about the trip, I’ll give some general thoughts on Indian road journeys.

Road quality

In my route planning, I decided to take a slightly longer route from Haldwani, down to Rudrapur, and then follow NH74 through Kashipur to Haridwar. It would have been a bit more direct to turn off at Haldwani towards Ramnagar, then cut across from there to Kashipur. There were two reasons for the choice: I thought it would be easier to navigate, and it followed National Highways, which I thought would be better quality and therefore faster.

However, this sort of decision making – standard in the UK, where you look to divert onto motorways and A roads where you can – doesn’t apply here. A National Highway isn’t necessarily a quick road at all. NH74, for example, doesn’t have bypasses, but goes straight through every village and town on its path.

A much more important factor is the location of the roads. The Ramnagar route would have kept me in Uttarakhand for longer, whereas the NH74 route was mostly through Uttar Pradesh. And I strongly suspect that the individual States are responsible for road maintenance, as the difference in road quality is dramatic: the NH74 transitions instantly from a rutted, pitted, potholed dirt track in UP to pristine tarmac when you cross the state border into Uttarakhand. So Ramnagar was probably the way I should have gone.

Navigation

Navigation isĀ hard. There are some major road signs in Hindi and English, and others just in Hindi. I can read Hindi script, so I can generally make out the Hindi-only signs, but even that’s not enough. Often, the sign for a turn-off won’t be on the road you’re travelling, ahead of the junction, but on the turn-off road itself, so you have to keep checking down side roads (and thereby taking the risk of taking your eyes off what’s happening in front of you).

In some cases, the sign isn’t at the junction at all, but a couple of km further down the turn-off road, as a grudging confirmation that you guessed correctly. This is why on several occasions I’ve ridden out of a town, knowing that I probably missed a turning in it, and gone several km looking for one of these confirmatory signs before heading back to the town.

Another reason navigation is so hard here, is that in the run-up to the 2014 elections, they seem to have covered up (legally, or illegally, I don’t know) many of the major road junction signs with political campaign posters. Which is helpful.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time stopping and asking for directions, or even just confirming that the road I’m on is going where I want it to, even though I’m 80% sure already. Better that than go through another hour of pothole endurance in the wrong direction. The recent attack in Jammu seems to have boosted the police presence, especially on junctions, which is useful, as the police seem to have quite good English, and are probably second only to taxi drivers in their knowledge of roads and places.

Wildlife

This is a pretty minor problem compared to the previous two. I’ve already mentioned dogs, cattle and monkeys. However, when I said the journey to Haridwar was uneventful, there was one exception. About 5km away from the city, I was riding across a bridge when the traffic around me slowed to a stop, and motorbikes and people on foot were coming back across from the other side, shouting and waving. I looked across at the car next to me, and asked, “kya hai?” (what is it?). The answer came back: “elephant”.

A few seconds later it appeared, ambling slowly round the corner and towards the bridge. The cars started reversing, and I followed the example of the other bikers in doing a U turn and retreating. Everyone got back to the near side of the bridge, and I stopped with the crowd, the bike facing away from the bridge, and watched over my shoulder as the elephant moved slowly towards us over the bridge. The crowd had left just enough space for it to reach this side and turn off down a side road, but they were also keen to watch and take photographs, and had formed a close line of observers.

The elephant obviously wasn’t happy with this, or with the amount of space that had been given to it, and started to charge at the spectators and vehicles. Mass panic set in, people were literally jumping out of their cars and running, and bikers, including me, were weaving in between the abandoned vehicles and people to get away. The elephant slowed back to a walk, and people returned to watch. A second charge had the same effect again. As fascinated as I was to watch the elephant, and how the crowd was reacting, I decided that I’d seen enough, and rode further back to a safer area to wait. Eventually, traffic began moving again and the road cleared. As I got to the bridge, the elephant was wandering off down the side road. Unfortunately, my camera wasn’t easily accessible while on the bike, and I wasn’t about to start faffing around to get it with a wild elephant charging at me, so I’m afraid there aren’t any pictures.

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