Round-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker hits the roads of India and wonders who - or what - has the right of way?
Going overland from England to India, a traveller is presented with a wide range of road attitudes. Western Europe's roads are fast. Eastern Europe's roads are fast and furious. The Middle East's roads are organised chaos. India's roads are simply chaos. Cycling on them is a daily lottery. Not so much whether you will or will not hit something, but more what you will hit. Car, mortorbike, overloaded bicycle, bus, truck, rickshaw, camel (one hump or two), elephant or just a pedestrian.
My first taste of India's roads was foolishly had during Delhi's infamous rush hour. Every sort of vehicle surged in the crush; three-manned motorbikes and rusty, single-speed bicycles threaded through the seemingly impossible gaps that opened for an instant when a driver is too busy honking to quite hug the bumper ahead. Amongst this madness stoically plodded an ancient bull elephant with its sleeping mahout (driver)lolling on top. The creature seemed somehow removed from the noisy surroundings and I could easily picture him elsewhere with the same slow, determined gait but no impatient cars and rickshaws nudging his flanks.
There was dense dust, heady smog and unparalleled noise as all Indians amplify their melodic, multi-tonal horns to a deafening volume. Sporting a handkerchief for a facemask, I bustled selfishly through the crush, continually shouting at drivers with mock indignation, and relishing their wide-eyed surprise. A long-suffering camel from the deserts of nearby Rajasthan strode enduringly along, hauling a cart and exuding dignity and majesty.
This was the experience of just half an hour. Over the next couple of weeks I was to learn how to navigate these hazardous highways by doing as the locals do (but not too much). The recklessness is shocking and the the perceived value of human life seems significantly lower than in Europe. I couldn't help but wonder if the Hindu belief in reincarnation has something to do with this.
The unwritten rules of the road in India are roughly as follows:
1. One must never look to either side, only forward. This, of course, applies to those entering a roundabout at speed. Once you have overtaken someone they cease to exist and their whereabouts is no longer your concern (as I discovered with a buckled wheel when a moped overtook and braked sharply while cutting across me a second later).
2. Never give way. A Spanish motorcyclist I met witnessed a brutal and apparently fatal head-on collision on a single lane road which he predicted several seconds earlier as he knew the stubborn nature of Indian drivers.
3. Traffic lights and actual rules of the road are for the weak. I saw a traffic policeman almost run down by a car that rolled on and on towards him as he helplessly whistled and waved his white-gloved hands.
Widespread corruption makes it easy to obtain a driving license in India without taking a test. In the last 30 years, the number of cars on India's roads has increased from 5 million to 75 million and the death toll has risen accordingly. In 2010, the count reached 150,000 (17 every hour). Thankfully, I wasn't one of them.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.