What is it like to go cycling in Punjab? Junaid from Assam, who has been living and cycling in Punjab gives us an outsiders perspective of this incredible state…
When we think about cycling as a lifestyle in India, we automatically think of Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and other big cities. Cycling is booming there and all the fancy bikes and riders hog the limelight. Little are we aware of the vibrant cycling scene growing steadily in the smaller cities of India.
With this thought in mind, of getting to know, ‘rustic’ Punjab, we asked our friend Junaid Parvez, to write about cycling in this Agrarian state. Junaid is from Assam and has lived and worked in Punjab for many years now. When you see a place as an outsider, you tend to notice a lot more. Because locals have seen it from childhood and such things fall in their blind spot.
Junaid was born and brought up in Assam, before studying in Delhi and getting a central government job. That job meant he spent 16 years in the Western half of India and 6 years in Punjab, along the frontier. He is currently based in Ferozepur and has been motoring along those roads all these years. For more than a year he has also been exploring the Punjab countryside on the humble bicycle as well. The slow speeds of a bicycle are perfect for observing elements which otherwise are missed by the human senses.
Cycling in Punjab: Places and People
In Junaid’s words…
Let’s cover the places and the people first. I’ve stayed or visited the cities of Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Bathinda, Hoshiyarpur, Chandigarh and small odd little halts in all the places in between.
The people of Punjab have always been cordial and helpful. Always smiling be it alone, with my wife and kid or in my official capacity.
However, the perspective changes while cycling, for both yourself and the people, they interact much more. The road bike (although just a Triban RC120) pulls in most of the attraction and then the fat ass MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra)! The questions range from how fast does the bike go? Is it battery powered? Cost etc.
The best part is, when they learn that I’ve travelled more than 50 km and have another 70-80 km to travel, the first thing they do is to offer chai, lassi or thanda. The offer itself is more than enough and heart-warming. It revives you from your exhaustion. Occasionally, while taking a halt in the sweltering heat and sweating profusely, I’ve had people stop to ask me if I needed assistance.
The funny part is the odd stares I get at the cycling shorts. And sometimes the question about the chamois protecting the delicate area! Oh yes, you won’t miss the intrigued looks from bike riders, the women folk riding pillion, cars and tractors.
Having ridden through small villages with a few odd houses, towns and big cities, the people are more or less the same. Just like anywhere in the country, the bigger the place, the less people care or are bothered about you.
How could I forget the funniest questions of all…
Once while doing a century ride (co-incidentally some BRM riders were riding through the same roads) a pair of young guys on a motorbike rode alongside me, asking all sorts of questions and finally, THE mother of all questions, “Why do you guys even ride such long distances? What’s the use?” It was a genuine question! A difficult question to answer, so I replied, “Just for fun!” That left them even more confused. I noticed them murmuring as they sped off.
It reminded me of another funny reaction I received on a motorbike ride, way back in December 2007. I was riding from Gandhinagar, Gujarat to Delhi via Nathdwara, about 950 km and16 hours in. After a long ride, I stopped for a lunch break at a dhaba, just after Nathdwara. As I lay on the khatiya (cot), the dhabawala out of curiosity asked me, “Where are you coming from?”. My reply, “Gandhinagar”. Then he asks, “Where are you going to?”. To which I replied, “Delhi” and then the immediate reaction “PAGAL HO GEYA HAI KYA! (Are you Mad!)”. The look on his face was priceless and forever etched in my mind.
Punjab is a beautiful state with lots of irrigational canals and rivers. To the west, it’s mostly farmlands always covered with one crop or the other. To the south western parts, Bathinda and beyond is the Kinnow belt, mostly the area bordering Rajasthan with sandy soil. During season, the orchards are covered with orange Kinnows. One enjoys drinking fresh kinnow juice from the innumerable juice stalls that pop up there.
As you travel from Abohar towards Sri Ganga Nagar in Rajasthan, you’ll notice the earth turning to desert, with a few sand dunes on both sides of the road. Abohar also has a few grape vineyards.
The area in and around Amritsar, specially from Amritsar to Pathankot is covered with many guava farms. You get to experience both type of guavas, with white and pink flesh. Multiple roadside guava stalls pop up in front of the farms. They’ll slit the guava and smear it with a salt-masala blend.
Same is the case during the sugarcane season. You can find lots of sugarcane juice stalls along the road.
Eastern Punjab, bordering the foothills of Himachal, make for a great hilly escapade. Multiple dams exist from the North to South. Few roads, I’ve driven on, but not yet on my bike, which would be great hill climb rides are: Pathankot-Dalhousie, Pathankot-Dharamshala, Hoshiyarpur-Dharamshala, Panchkula-Kasauli via Parwanoo town (not the new expressway).
Moving on to the roads and traffic while cycling in Punjab.
Overall the roads are great with good surfacing. However, when travelling between two places, if that highway doesn’t connect to major commercial/ religious places, its best avoided. That’s my observation.
I’ve had the experiences of riding bad roads for 40+ km with just a few 100 km being okay in between. This is even more important if you ride a road bike like me.
Two of my recent experiences are roads Ferozepur-Sri Mukstar Sahib-Malout. Approximately 55 out of 80 km were the most horrible roads I have ever ridden. That includes my rides on under construction roads in Arunachal!
Ferozepur-Harike (50% of the road is full of potholes). If there are alternate highways, especially NHs, even if it is 20 km longer, it would be advisable to take that.
When riding off the highways, most villages are within 2 to 5 km of each other, with good roads. All small villages have the main road circumnavigating them. Only the big villages have roads through them.
Traffic Sense or (Non)sense!
Having ridden from 4 AM to about 1 AM, I’ve found the traffic to be overall good. Even the huge load carrier trucks are respectful of your presence on the road.
Then again, it’s our responsibility too as cyclists, to be aware of the traffic from both front and rear. When riding on a two lane 8-12 meter wide road, if two heavy vehicles are passing each other from the opposite direction, you’ll definitely be pushed to the extreme edge. Never have I been pushed off the road nor have I faced any road rage.
Occasionally few cars would drive past a little too close and those teenagers on bikes shouting at you to make fun of you. Mostly, you’ll get an appreciative nod from people.
While riding on dual carriageway 4-6 lane highways, like anywhere in India, we need to be extra careful as traffic moves at 100+ kmph and has little time to react.
No driver is driving on the road aiming to kill anyone.
Keeping in mind our Indian traffic density, we have to learn to share the road and not feel entitled. Safe riding and safety on Indian roads is our own responsibility, and I’m speaking this out of my experience as a driver, rider and a cyclist.
Never do I ride without my lights both front and rear, always in ‘flashing mode’ even during day rides. Reflectors on my shoes, jersey and helmet also helps. Recently, I pasted small strips of 3M prismatic reflective tapes to my bike too, on the wheels, fork and seat stay. Make yourself visible at all times and blink lights grabs attention and keeps you safer.
Land of Food!
Finally, the food and drinks. And of course the longest section of this article. Because what is the point of cycling, if you don’t enjoy good food!
It’s Punjab, need I say more! After all it’s one of the most famous cuisines all over the world.
Being a North Eastern, we are hardcore non-vegetarians, we eat everything that walks, runs, flies or crawls!
A typical light hearted stereotyping of Punjabis, was imagining the sardars to be tandoori chicken munching and Patiala peg guzzling machines! I was in for a rude shock.
Majority of the dhabas are vaishno dhabas and you won’t find non-veg food for at least 60-70 km at a time. Even in the bigger towns, 8 out of 10 restaurants would be vegetarian only. But, the variety of stuffed paranthas with a huge dollop of Amul butter more than makes up for it.
Fresh parantha, chole puri/ bhature is always available for breakfast, dal roti with paneer & mix veg, is easily available even in the smallest of dhabas and along every small highway.
Fast Food & Slow Rides!
Then there is the fast-food culture, which is very popular. Subway is the most prevalent among big chains. You can easily find a Subway in all major towns or even in between, on the busier highways.
If not a big chain, there will always be some local chain of fast food joint every 10-20 km, selling the quintessential burgers, wraps, pizzas, pastas and fries, offered with mocktails.
However, like in the case of dhabas, some of the fast-food joints are veg only.
Be wary if you don’t like cabbage and capsicum in your burger. They adore their capsicum. I was told once, “What’s there to taste if there is no capsicum? Capsicum adds all the flavour!”
Also, they are in love with mayonnaise and splatter everything with this sauce.
Indian Chinese move over, we have Punjabi Chinese!
Don’t expect great Chinese, without a Punjabi twist, if it’s on the menu. Eat only if craving for Chinese.
I once rode 120 km in 39 degree C heat, to a famous Tibetan restaurant in Ludhiana. To my dismay, only to discover that they didn’t have “Tingmo” the basic Tibetan bread, nor did they have Thenthuk. Even the momos were overly stuffed with minced meat, which were not at all juicy as they should be.
The Leman, stir fried flat noodle were just passable. The only thing the food had was huge quantities and lots of meat.
A total disappointment, specially when they are a chain originally from Dehradun, run by Tibetans. They have their restaurants in Dharamshala, Mussoorie, Chandigarh and Delhi.
“Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink…”
A line from the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge fortunately doesn’t apply when cycling in Punjab.
Drinking water there is never an issue. Most fuel stations have RO machines with water coolers and same is the case with Gurudwaras. You’ll never be left without drinking water.
You’ll also find handpumps along the highway, next to the culvert over an irrigational canal. Great for cooling off during extreme hot days and for drinking.
In case someone, feels like, there is no dearth of liquor stores as well and chilled beer is always available, though I advise against it, during rides. Might be at the end of a ride, if you are really craving for it.
Another drink which I discovered in the summer is, chilled lime water. But they put some gelatine like bits in it, check and tell them not to put it, if you are not fond of it, like me. It is refreshing in the summer heat. You’ll also find lemon soda stalls near bigger cities, that banta wala (marble soda bottle).
However, for coffee lovers, you can find it only in the bigger towns and cities. Even smaller towns don’t have coffee shops.
Come Hither to Go Cycling in Punjab!
Travelling in Punjab is overall a great experience. Great people, great food and great roads.
But no place can be truly described in words or pictures, one needs to travel there in person to experience it…
Text & Photos: Junaid Parvez