A 1,600-Mile Rickshaw Road Trip through India

India by Tuk

We nicknamed our three-wheeled, two-stroke rickshaw Tuk. Tuk was painted sky blue with big white clouds. It looked like the Ben & Jerry’s packaging. It looked just about as ridiculous as the trip I was about to go on was. A week ago, I was at home planning a climbing trip, now I was in Kochi, India, ready to drive a beat down Rickshaw another 2,500 km to the northeastern desert town of Jaislamer. That might be a bit extreme for some. Not a typical spur of the moment "vacation," but seeing as I had lived in India years ago and my two partners were avid if not professional travelers, I decided it was the perfect dose of adventure. In a way, this no plans road trip was the quintessential road trip. The "race" was not much of a race, but more of a no holds barred set up for adventure. The premise being you start at point A with an unreliable rickshaw and drive it to point B in 10-14 days. Anything in between point A and B was up to you and your teammates. 

Some people are more comfortable road tripping in a planned way; others prefer less planning and more unknown variables. In this case, we forced adventures and mishaps on our trip through or choice of transportation, route, and leaving large parts of the plan blank. I was excited about testing my road tripping skills. For years I’d been sharpening my travel skills from road trips in the Eastern Sierra of California to the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Colorado. I wondered if what I learned road tripping in the US would help on this trip. Our rickshaw was more than questionable and the route was completely in the air, it seemed the only guarantee was there would be plenty of room for things to go wrong.

The next time you’re taking a trip, whether internationally, cross-country, or even locally, I urge you to think about not only how your means of transportation can add to your experience, but your route and the time you allow for spontaneous events. Pushing yourself from completely planned trips, to slightly planned trips will be a huge leap to having more spontaneous adventures.

Transportation

After I committed to this trip, I realized I had never driven a rickshaw. Overlooking this small detail was all I could do. In the end, piloting Tuk was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. Avoiding potholes, semis, other rickshaws and the hundreds of obstacles was constant entertainment. This trip would be about seeing a swath of India at a steady pace of 60 kph and everything that comes with a machine that over heats every two ours. There was a secret beauty in the broke down Tuk we were driving. Although we only had two weeks to cover 2,500 km and would be driving all day most days, Tuk forced us to slow down.

On previous road trips, I’d always chosen transportation that would enable me to move as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Being able to stay somewhere for a day if I wanted knowing I could make up the time on the road the following day. Tuk constantly had us guessing. Whether we were stopped letting the engine cool off every other hour or refilling our fuel because we were too caught up in the sites to remember to check the gas levels, the three-wheeled Tuk kept us on our toes. Tuk was as big a part of of the trip as the route itself.

Fortunately for us, Tuk never had any major breakdowns. There were some self-inflicted injuries that involved cramming it into a train in Mumbai, but Tuk ran all the way to the end. No matter where you’re planning to take a trip, you can adjust the adventure level with your transportations. Maybe you have one week to see a state, a bike trip could be a more up-close look than simply driving. Or if you’re on a longer trip and want to make sure you are comfortable and enjoy every moment, a car or camper van could be the answer.

In Between Destinations

Knowing we would be spending the majority of our days driving, we had to figure out how to see as much as possible when we weren't. We threw around ideas of where to go as we drove aimlessly north. The possibilities were endless, but that was a bit overwhelming. We decided to try to make it to surreal town of Hampi, which was slightly off the most direct route, but we figured it was worth the detour. We had about three days of driving before we would reach Hampi and knew we could find amazing things in between. Taking the next three days day-by-day allowed us to seek out the winding roads of the Ghats Mountains, the Tea Country, and dirt roads through remote villages.

Around the second day, the double lane paved roads turned to single lane paved roads, then dirt, then small stone bridges and narrow passages. It was exactly how I was planning on traveling. We were completely lost making no progress, but probably as far off the beaten path as you could be. In fact, the path ended at a large channel farmers had built to irrigate their banana trees. The three of us were there to see how by-the-seat-of-our-pants we could travel. We were there to seek out the in-between destinations and enjoy the road. In this case we had to turn around at the dead end and backtrack until we found a road connecting us to the village's main road.

As much as we all wanted to travel by backroads the entire time, seeing as we made almost no progress doing so we had to jump on a highway and put in some miles for an entire day. With that in mind, we left the next morning before dark and finished the rest of the distance to Hampi.

Setting a goal destination and leaving the time to get there open can work anywhere. Choose a spot of interest, a friend you want to see, or new part of the country you want visit and then research what’s on the way, or slightly out of the way. Even in India we were able to find natural areas, parks, and interesting cities to drive through and stop at on our way to Hampi.

Hampi was as unbelievable as we thought it would be, but after an afternoon we were pressed for time and forced to get back to making miles on the road. Our short one-day break running around the boulders of Hampi showed us we’d better spend our time exploring while we were on the road. As we drove north from Hampi with no destination, we began to talk about how we could stay in a place for a full day or two. That got us to thinking about a new means of transportation.

Room For Mishaps

Traveling in the open-air rickshaw was great, but not the most efficient travel by any means. Thinking about how to make the most of our experience we hatched the plan to drive to Mumbai next and see if we could load Tuk on a train and make up some time. This idea had us all excited and motivated to get to Mumbai. It’s rare that your trip is so open you can swap out or, in this case piggy back, transportation and get an incredible experience like an overnight train ride in India. Allowing our trip to have days of no progress and room to explore was what we wanted. The train was the perfect creative solution to our lack of speed. Although we would be spending an entire afternoon dealing with the logistics of shipping our rickshaw, we’d make up hundreds of miles sleeping on the train. We’d be skipping over somewhat uninteresting straight driving and leap frogging us ahead, so we could spend more time in the state of Rajasthan.

Of course, loading the rickshaw was no easy task and when the final whistle blew for our train to leave, we looked at a crowd of men pushing the last foot of Tuk into the cargo bay. Stress levels were at a high and the station chief was quickly warning us to get the rickshaw off. We were on the verge of panic. Terrified of the thought of seeing Tuk taking off half hanging out of the cargo bay and us not on the train. The group of men pushing the rickshaw continued, and finally as we weighed our choices, fit the square peg in the round hole and closed the doors on the cargo train. With Tuk secure we sprinted on board.

I can’t say I would recommend doing it again, but I’d easily recommend leaving some room for changing your plans on any trip. You’re bound to run into some unexpected hurdles and some unexpected rewards. When we unloaded our Tuk, we were looking at a few damages but plenty of time to spend the day in town with the mechanics and buzzing around the city finding the right parts.

We were coming to the end of our trip. The train had marked the halfway point of the trip in both days and miles and we were a few days past that. Now in Jodhpur, we relaxed and wandered around the city some. It was an amazing change of pace, one that I looked forward to continuing after the race. Thinking about what I had learned over the two weeks, I wondered where I would end up, how I’d get there and what I’d see on my way. We finished the race in Jaisalmer the next day. My teammates quickly took off on their next adventure. One went home, the other to Eastern India. I stayed in Jaisalmer taking advantage of traveling by foot and staying in one spot for more than 12 hours. Looking back on the two weeks I knew I craved slowing down. I also knew eventually I’d have to make my way to New Delhi and ultimately home. How exactly I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t nervous.

Published: November 26, 2018

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