Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Okay so I’m guessing it’s because I was flying Spice Jet from Sri Lanka, but for some reason, I landed at the domestic arrivals hall of Chennai airport, which I’ve discovered since is far more basic than the international terminal – so basic in fact that it has no ATM’s whatsoever! It’s literally just a tiny building with three customs gates and two baggage carousels.

I never organize local currency before travelling somewhere new because it is almost always cheaper to just draw from an ATM on arrival, so this was a significant problem. I didn’t have a single cent for a bus, train or anything. I managed to explain my plight to a nice parking attendant who told me there was an ATM about 2km’s away and showed me on Google Maps.

He must have felt sorry for me because a few minutes after walking off he came up behind me on his motorbike and offered me a lift, which was a godsend as I soon found out there is NO WAY I would have found the ATM and also walking on the streets doesn’t seem particularly safe, especially at 4 am when you are sick and haven’t slept. Chennai is pretty chaotic.


The airport also didn’t have wifi or a sim card shop, so I couldn’t transfer any more money to my current account but luckily managed to draw about 2000 rupees (about £20) – more than enough for the 25 rupee bus to a hostel that the nice attendant found for me on his phone.


By the time I got to the hostel Red Lollipop (highly recommended), it was about 7 am and I couldn’t check in yet but they told me where I could get some food and let me nap on a chair until 9:30 am when a bed became free. I slept until about 2 pm and then headed out to a nearby Decathlon store to buy a bike, as my plan is to bike tour India.

Red Lollipop Kitchen
Red Lollipop Kitchen

The selection was significantly more limited than in Europe so I ended up getting a kind of road/tour hybrid version of the B-Twin Triban, which aren’t exactly the best bikes but only cost £300 and would do the job for now. I might have to upgrade some parts but the frame seems solid and I’m carrying minimal weight.

I also bought a handlebar bag, lock, bottle with cage, pannier rack, hand pump and lights. Annoyingly they didn’t have spare tubes or puncture-resistant tyres, so I might have to do old-school roadside puncture patching until I can get some.

The bike
The bike

When I got back to the hostel I managed to convince the nice receptionist to let me keep the bike inside, and then he told me about a secret place called Trouser Kadai that serves the best local food. He wasn’t joking about secret – it has no name or sign outside and you wouldn’t know it was there if somebody didn’t show you. They seemed very surprised and honoured to have a westerner in their establishment and went to great length explaining to me the different dishes and how they are made. I had two servings of Idli with curry and a masala dosa all for only 40 rupees (less than 50p), served on a banana leaf and eaten by hand, of course.

Trouser Kadai
Trouser Kadai

After that, I just chilled at Red Lollipop watching movies in their awesome TV room and chatting with the other guests, from whom I picked up some very useful info from about Auroville and other places to go in Pondicherry.


DAY 2: Mahabalipurum

On day 2 it was time to set off properly!  I awoke early, still coughing a bit, grabbed some coffee and biscuits, packed my bike and started cycling south. After about an hour I arrived at another Decathlon store where the guy yesterday said I could get pannier bags for Rs699 (about £8).


Just after packing the bags and getting ready to leave I noticed my back tyre was flat! A quick inspection revealed it was a bit damaged around the valve and had a slow leak. Annoyingly they didn’t have any replacement tubes in the correct size, so I had to patch it. I think Decathlon is quite new in India because their stock is very limited. At least they gave me the patch for free.

On route
On route

The patch worked well because I didn’t have any problems for the next 40km to Mahabalipuram. The roads, once you are out of the city, are actually quite nice and not too busy, plus quite well paved and even.  I only stopped once briefly for an excellent 30 rupee coffee and had a chat with a nice old Indian guy about my bike and South African cricket.

I arrived in Mahabalipuram in the early afternoon and stopped for more coffee and some Aloo Tiki, which are like potato cakes (£1.50). Afterwards, I decided to try push on through to Pondicherry which means I must have been delirious from the heat because it was almost 100km’s away!

Luckily trusty old Google Maps directed me straight into a nuclear power plant (in fact, the Indra Ghandi Atomic Research plant), and so I had to back track about 10km to Mahabalipuram and then smartly decided to stop there for the night.


This turned out to be a great idea because Mahabalipuram is awesome! It’s a tiny little village with these mad rock formations and old temples, including one called Krishna’s Butterball which is just a big round rock that somehow is balanced on a slope. Magic!  Check out some pics in the slideshow below:

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I found a cheap motel called Full Moon that gave me a private room with en-suite for Rs500 (£5.50), parked my bike inside, had a shower and headed out to explore.  While exploring the ruins I got chatting to an Indian guy who told me about the history of one ruin that looks like an elephant with a temple built into it’s rib cage, with the pillars making up the ribs.

 

My room at Full Moon
My room at Full Moon

I felt amazed that this place existed and yet I had never even heard of it, and it made me wonder what else is out there?  These days you tend to assume the entire world is discovered and there is nothing new to see, and yet sometimes we can fall upon a treasure like this akin to how ancient explorers did in the past.

 

After that, I went down to the beach which sadly wasn’t very impressive and then walked around the village, which really comes alive at night with lots of bars and restaurants. I was still feeling quite sick so instead of beer I just had some 60p vegetable soup, bought some snacks and headed off to bed. Big bags of Lays in India are only 30p – awesome!

India Day 3: Auroville

My sickness got particularly bad last night for some reason and I was worried putting on the fan would make it worse, but then I kept getting annoyed by mosquito’s so I had to put it on. In the end, I eventually fell asleep but I only got about 4 hours.

I had some coffee and a toasted sandwich and then headed off at about 8am. Unfortunately after Mahabalipuram the road isn’t as good as the stretch from Chennai. Due to the power station blocking off the coastal road you have to take the highway which doesn’t have a proper tarred shoulder – it’s made from bricks more like a sidewalk which makes it difficult to cycle on.

As a result, you need to cycle on the road and continuously move off and on the bricks when a vehicle comes. Fortunately, the traffic is quiet for the most part until you get closer to Pondicherry, which is also when the shoulder becomes tar again.


I cycled almost non-stop for the first 50km’s and then stopped at a CoffeeBreak, which are these very westernised road side cafe’s with over-priced sandwiches and coffee for tourists, but I hadn’t seen anything else for ages and I was starving.

I had a fairly decent veg burger for Rs110 (£1.20) while watching an old French guy pretend to dance to Hindi music, and then continued on. A few kilometres later I reached a small village with lots of cheap local food, so I should have waited! I stopped and had some excellent Rs10 (12p) coffee and four bananas that a kind girl gave me for free.

 

That night, because Pondi was full, I had booked into a hostel in Auroville, which is this kind of hippie commune that was started decades ago as a social experiment, I think? I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s quite nice and peaceful, if a little bit run-down and rustic.

It’s got lost of dirt tracks through the forest which was fun to cycle on and lots of interesting areas and pavilions based around different countries and cultures. It’s very multi-cultural although bizarrely also has a strict membership policy for a lot of things so at times can feel a bit unwelcoming.

The hostel I was staying at called Blue Lotus appeared to be run or managed by a Spanish guy who really enjoyed doing handstands, but did not enjoy checking for online bookings. As result, it was full because he had given my bed away to a walk-in. (To be honest, this happens quite often in small towns, especially with cheaper hostels that have a very relaxed attitude, so in some cases, it’s best not to try book ahead).

Fortunately, he made room for me by moving the office around and putting a bed in there which meant I kind of had my own room, only it didn’t have any curtains or windows that closed properly so I had trouble sleeping until everyone outside had gone to bed and put the lights out. It was okay in the end I still got 7 hours sleep.

India Day 4: Pondicherry

On my way to Pondicherry, after some morning yoga and free breakfast, I was stopped by a French resident of Auroville who told me about ‘the best cycle cafe in India’ which just happens to be in Auroville. I don’t know if it’s the best but it is pretty cool so if you’re ever in Auroville check it out.

I had a coffee and chatted with the owner for awhile about touring and various bike stuff and mentioned I might want to camp. He happened to have a second-hand tent available which was very convenient since nowhere in India sells tents, although also kind of inconvenient as I found out later it’s not really possible to camp anywhere in India!

Auroville Bike shop
Auroville Bike shop

Anyway I bought the tent and then continued on to Pondi down a convenient side road he told me about that was quiet and got me there quicker. I had some serious trouble finding the hostel I was booked into because Google Maps was completely wrong but eventually someone helped me by phoning the number.

I checked in and then went to get a simcard, which requires your passport and a passport photo – India has a lot of strict rules compared with most places I’ve been and they are obsessed with seeing your passport at any opportunity – they must have real problems with illegal immigrants.

The simcard with data package was Rs520 (about £6) and was supposed to include 1GB data a day for 70 days, but as I found out later it never activated and since Airtel has no customer service I had no choice but to top up again for £5. Annoyingly it takes 24 hours to activate so if you do get a simcard make sure you stay in the same place you got it so 24 hours later you can go back to the shop if it doesn’t activate. I was already miles away 24 hours later.

I cycled around Pondicherry a bit seeing the sites, got some Rs20 samosas for dinner, bought a yoga mat for sleeping and then just chilled in the hostel writing various blog updates and drinking the free tea until about midnight.

Cycled: 10km

Hostel Olivia… lacking furniture 😀

India Day 5: Villapuram and Trichy

Despite waking up early I took a long time getting ready because I was obsessed with making a stupid rope attachment work for putting my tent on the bike.  I had come up with the idea in my head the night before of putting it on the handlebars to distribute the weight better and I was convinced it was a genius idea. I did make it work in the end but it’s far from genius.

Then around 11am I cycled off to Villapuram, getting some bananas along the way and arriving there about 2pm after a very slow 30km. The route is not particularly interesting and being a main route into Pondi it was very busy and quite annoying.

The plan was to get a train or bus from Villapuram to Kochi on the west coast, but things didn’t work out that easily. In Villapuram I was told there is no bus and was directed to the train station. At the train station, I was told there is no direct train, I must go to Trichy (Tiruchichivalli) and change there.

Villapauram
Villapauram

I also had to put my bike on a separate postal train for delivery and it would arrive later than me. I wasn’t totally comfortable with this but did it anyway as the road and scenery around here aren’t great and I wanted to save time getting to the west coast.

The train to Trichy was quite an experience, having to literally squeeze in like sardines for 3 hours while people constantly push past to go to the toilet. Not too much unlike most trains just exceptionally busier! By the time I got to Trichy it was already 7pm and my bike arrived at 9pm so I wasn’t going anywhere that night. I managed to find a very cheap hotel room (Rs350) which was really just some cardboard walls in a garage with a folding single bed, but it would do fine for the night.

 

I used the free wifi at the train station for a bit and got some spicy dosa for dinner at a really dodgy looking restaurant next door, then crashed out early with the fan going on full blast to keep out the mosquito’s.

India Day 6: Trichy to Theni

Today was an excellent day. I started off very early, about 6:45am and headed south to Dindigul, my goal for the day. On the way, I had a quick roadside cake and coffee for breakfast but otherwise road non-stop for 50km.

All along the way were pilgrims dressed in some traditional clothing walking along the roadside. I said hello to almost all of them as I went, wanting to know what it was about but unwilling to stop long enough to ask.

Eventually, a guy on a scooter stopped me just when I was getting very tired and hungry and asked me the usual questions – ‘Where you from?’ ‘Where you going?’ etc. As we were chatting one of the pilgrims invited me to join them for food, so I happily obliged.

He sat me down with the others and gave me the traditional banana leaf to eat off and then served me up huge portions of Idly and this porridge they eat that is similar to congee.

After eating one of the pilgrims told me about the walk, that it was a 5 day pilgrimage to the Murugan Temple in Palani. We chatted a bit more about my cycle and then I thanked them both and headed off again. I was well rested and energized so I powered through to Dindigul non-stop and arrived by 2pm.

Now I had already done my 100km for the day and it was only 2pm, so after another short rest and getting my simcard data sorted out I hit the road again for another quite difficult 60km’s to Vaigai dam where I was hoping to camp for the night.

I stopped only once for some awesome chilli bhaji’s and an orange soda, and a nice guy on a motorbike road along with me for 10km’s chatting and then bought me some tea.

In the end, I wasn’t allowed to camp at Vaigai dam and couldn’t find anywhere else, plus it was getting dark so I continued to Theni and found a cheap Rs500 hotel room.  I checked in and then had some tea with the security guard who was playing crazy loud music on this huge speaker system.  I think it’s some kind of festival this weekend.  Luckily the music went off about midnight, but started up again at 5am!

Cycled: 178km

Day 7: Uphill to Kerala!

I was awoken at 5am by the crazy music at my hotel so I figured I may as well get ready and head off early.  By 7am I was on the road and stopped only for some cakes and coffee for breakfast.  It’s great how many little food and coffee stores there are along the roads here – perfect for cycling!

In fact, I’m surprised India isn’t more well known as a cycle destination because it’s really built for it – excellent roads, very affordable and lots of facilities along the way.  The only problem I’ve had so far is the lack of camping but I guess this is just not the place for it, and since accommodation is so cheap it’s not a huge problem.  I do feel a bit silly lugging around a 2kg tent for no reason though.


Today I had to cycle up to Munnar, a hill town up in the Western Ghats which is the mountain range that provides the border between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  I reached the foot of the mountains in about an hour and started the ascent.  I should have refilled my second water bottle but I was sure there would be something on the way.

Well there wasn’t – I climbed continuously for about 3 hours and just before the top, just as I had run out of water and food, I was saved by an awesome guy on a coffee plantation.  He runs a little shop on the side of the road selling snacks and water, as well as the best coffee I’ve ever had that he makes himself from his coffee beans.  He even gave me some beans and told me how I can make my own.

 

I rested for an hour and had three cups of his coffee while chatting to him, bought two more bottles of water and about ten cakes and biscuits and then attempted the last few hundred metres to the top.

Best coffee in India
Best coffee in India

There is an awesome campsite at the top which on reflection I should have stopped at, but it was only 2pm and I felt like I still could make it to Munnar, since it appeared mostly downhill on Google Maps.

Unfortunately on the first bit of the descent, I was chased by two crazy dogs which I had to cycle like mad to get away from, and as a result, I missed the Munnar turn off.  After I realised this I didn’t want to go back and face the dogs again so I found another route, but somehow I missed that turn off too because all the beautiful tea distracted me!  I should probably get a GPS.


By now it was about 3 pm and I was exhausted and way off track.  I found a road that would get me to what looked like a nice lake before dark where I could maybe camp, but the road was closed.

Anyway, I ignored the sign and cycled down the road anyway, which was good because it turned out there wasn’t any good reason for it being closed.  However, as usual, I couldn’t camp at the lake and was told to continue on 5km to a lodge – this doesn’t sound a lot but it was all uphill and by this point, I could barely walk let alone cycle.


Along the way I came across an Indian wedding and a guy outside invited me to join them for dinner.  I was worried as it was already almost dark but I hoped maybe someone in the wedding could help me with a place to sleep.  They kept serving me up loads of rice with curry and sambal until I eventually I had to politely decline.

Hindu Wedding
Hindu Wedding

It was really good though and fully re-energized my dampened spirit.  Unfortunately after eating I couldn’t find my new friend and nobody else spoke much English, so I gave in and pushed the bike uphill for a few more kilometres until I finally came across a small hotel.

Fortunately, they had cheap dorm room beds for Rs350 (£4) so I said I’ll take one.  Even more, fortunately, the dorm room electricity didn’t work so they put me in an empty private room for the same cost – bonus!

Cycled: 75km

 

2 Replies to “Cycling India: Tamil Nadu”

  1. So interesting Mark. You certainly are adventurous. Despite the challenges you just seem to find a way. Hope you bike lasts the trip and you don’t get knocked off. I believe the traffic can be quite hectic.

    Can you add a map showing where you are where you planning to go. Would be good to see your progress.

    Good luck

  2. Pingback: Anonymous

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