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Horn Please! Indian roads, journeys from heaven and journeys from hell.

Classic AmbassadorI am not a nervous passenger by any stretch of the imagination. I can quite happily be chauffeured around on the worst of Indian roads, barely blinking at what most travellers to the country find, what can be described at best, as utterly terrifying.  It does me good on occasion when friends, who have never ventured to the subcontinent before, visit me and I travel with them.  Seeing their reaction to what, for me, seems perfectly reasonable, gives me a reality check. For example; ducking out of a petrol station, in my beloved Ambassador, with no head lights, at night, onto the wrong side of the road and therefore facing oncoming traffic, in order to drive 500m to your destination, is actually wrong.  Being acclimatised to life in India, this would never occur to me.  The look on my friends faces, accompanied by the white of their knuckles providing much needed light in the absence of headlights, sweat protruding on their foreheads, despite the air-conditioning, persuaded me otherwise.

As far as my, in my opinion, excellent driver was concerned, why would you turn the correct way, proceed along in the same direction as (most of) the other traffic, down to the nearest roundabout, only to have to come back to more or less where you started from? It is quite simply a waste of time and fuel.  This, being just one small incident in an otherwise traffic violation full day, was barely discernable to me as a misdemeanour.

A dog on a bikeHowever, I can appreciate that to the non-naturalised members of the human race, Indian roads are well, quite simply, shocking, petrifying, frightening (take your pick) and utterly confusing.   The NH8 being one of the best cases in point.  The rule is; there are no rules. ‘’Might is right,’’ is the only guideline, but one people with too much bravado (or alcohol) inside them may choose to ignore. I am not sure I have ever met anyone who has taken a driving test: in a land as corrupt as my favourite country on the planet is, why bother when a few hundred rupees (less than £5.00) in many instances, can buy a licence for you?

In seventeen years of selling holidays to India, my one consistent piece of advice to the traveller is, “Do not try to understand India’’. To do so will drive you insane.  For every comment one can make about the country, the opposite is also true.  She is a giant, living paradox and to attempt to fathom out the logic of how she operates is guaranteed to drive you round the bend.  It will also leave Indians looking at you in a bewildered manner, as they try to figure out why you are so confused and/or irate.  India is what she is, accept her for what she is and you will fall in love with her. However, you may never fall in love with some of her roads.

A bikeI refuse to generalise and say that all Indian roads are horrific.  I have journeyed on some which were an utter delight, where actually it was the journey on them that made the day extraordinarily special.  Some of the roads in Madhya Pradesh, where many tribal people still live in traditional houses, and much of the area is still forested, are a wonderful experience.  Travel in October/November just after the monsoons when the houses have been repainted a beautiful indigo blue, the surrounding mustard crops are a vibrant yellow, the hay is being harvested and children play at the side of the roads, giggling as they race an old bicycle tyre, flashing brilliant smiles and waving as you go by, and you cannot fail to perceive, albeit temporarily, that all you thought about Indian roads was wrong.

A viewI think the most beautiful drive I have ever enjoyed was the road from Dunagiri in the Kumaon to Abbotsford in Nainital, despite the cracked windscreen! This was a journey encompassing the stunningly beautiful scenery of the Himalayan foothills, rolling landscapes dotted with small temples, gurgling streams, winding roads, virtually no litter and hardly another vehicle encountered in the five hour journey, which meant no incessant honking of horns. Yes, the adage of “all you need to drive in India are good eyes, good brakes and a good horn” is one that all Indians practice with alarming alacrity: well, one out of three isn’t bad. But on this road, we were spared and amidst such natural beauty it provided almost an ethereal silence.

But, stories of beautiful scenery and almost deserted roads, whilst hopefully persuading you that not all Indian journeys are fraught with danger, do not make for amusing tales, and so I return to the living hell that is the NH8. In particular, the stretch of the NH8 that runs between Delhi and Jaipur; a stretch of road I know all too well, as I chose to live in Jaipur while my office remained in Delhi.

A bike 3On a good day, this road will have trucks laden with anything from marble to cauliflowers, some may even be upright, others may be on their sides with their contents strewn along the carriageway. There will be cars, tractors, tuk-tuks, elephants, camels, bullock carts, motorbikes (carrying anywhere between 1 and 5 people, possibly with a suitcase or a large plate of glass) and bicycles laden with an impossible load of either plastic containers, ladders, and in some cases gas cylinders. Have I missed anything? Oh, dogs, people milling around, an occasional herdsman with a herd of goats and of course, cows.  Cows standing in the middle of six lanes of traffic (only three are official lanes, but I am sure you are beginning to get the picture), cows lying down chewing the cud in the middle of six lanes of traffic, cows sauntering along to find the next rubbish heap at the side of six lanes of manic traffic and as we know, cows are to be avoided at all costs.

Again, for some reason, I became accustomed to the conditions of the NH8.  It is accepted that heading in the Jaipur – Delhi direction, around 1km north of Kotputli, you will encounter far more than the normal number of trucks heading at you, literally. This is due to the same logic that my driver used earlier in this piece.  To follow the correct way to get to Kotputli, means, due to the barrier in the middle of the lanes of chaos, driving past the turning, to have to U-turn and come back up.  Why on earth would you, where there is an unnatural gap in the central reservation 1km ahead of the turning which will save this apparent illogical route mapping?

However, one recent journey tried even my nerves of steel, had the odd bead of sweat forming on my alarmed brow and, I have to admit, to the odd squeal of terror. I decided to make the journey by Volvo bus. Now, these are usually quite a good way to travel, if one has to undergo this road at all.  However, I managed to take one that was the exception rather than the rule.  I should have been alerted to what was to come by the cracks in the windscreen.  Having been allocated seat A2, the front row aisle seat on the side of the driver, I was in the perfect position to count these prior to departure. I stopped at twenty six.

A bike againThe bus driver appeared, sadly not the relatively smart man who had been showing us onto the bus, but a particularly scruffy individual, with a ripped shirt and paan stained teeth. He climbed aboard, closely followed by his friend who sat in the jump seat and we set off. Now to say that we had two near misses before we even got out of the station, would be an understatement. This was due to the fact that the driver insisted on looking at his friend in the jump seat whilst he was talking to him. Polite in normal circumstances, not ideal when in control, and I use that expression loosely, of a 52 seat Volvo coach.

We managed to get out of the main city without incident, mainly because the speed rarely reached over 20 kph.  Now I am not sure whether it was because I was not sitting in the back of my beloved Ambassador, my usual preferred seat when attempting this road, head buried in my BB or laptop or catching up on much needed sleep, or whether it was my prime seat, with nothing between me and the road apart from a large windscreen, but, for the first time, I became intensely away of just what took place on the NH8, one of the main national highways of the country.

On the outskirts of the city, just at the point where we would have hoped (which turned out to be otherwise) to be able to pick up speed, there was a street market, set up on the inside lane of this portion of the NH8 which should have officially been 6 lanes at this point. However, out of the three lanes allocated to our preferred trajectory, the inside lane was the street market, full of colourful stalls, laden with fruit, vegetables, sari’s, etc. The middle lane was awash with shoppers, casually milling around, oblivious to the fact that this was a national highway, catching up with friends, stopping to gossip and the only thing causing them consternation, were the prices charged by the vendors. The outside lane therefore, naturally, was where the buses and cars stopped at random to let their passengers out or to collect them once laden with goods, preventing the continuation of our journey for quite some time. Horns blared, oblivious women gossiped, men stood around picking their noses or scratching their nether regions and our bus driver somehow managed to miss each and every hazard as he slowly weaved his way through. Can you imagine this on the M1 or the M25?

However, once past this blockage, we began to pick up speed and it was at this point that I really began to feel concerned. You see, despite the fact that we were careering along at around 80kms per hour, and trust me, that is positively careering on an Indian road, the driver insisted on continuing his conversation with his friend.  I became quite obsessed by this, not the content, but the fact that with alarming regularity he would turn to face his friend, meaning (and I counted) that his eyes were off the road for between 3-4 seconds at a time. I am sure someone who works at or has attended a Driver’s Awareness course in the UK, can tell me relevant stopping distances at this speed which will only be further elongated by the lack of observation of what could possibly cause one to brake in the first place. When he wasn’t looking at his friend, he was tipping his head back to drink out of his bottle of water, or looking over his right shoulder to spit paan out of the window.

In addition to this, I noticed several other things that were just utterly preposterous.  Despite this being a six lane highway, there were two men, squatting as Indians do, in the outside lane, painting the central reservation in perfect blocks of black and white. Were there large brightly lit signs warning drivers of carriageway repairs, asking them to slow down? No! Was there a large line of traffic cones, directing traffic into the inside 2 lanes? No! Were there just 2 men, with a tin of paint each and a brush, squatting in the fast lane of a busy motorway without so much as one single traffic cone to protect them? Yes!

We continued on, weaving in and out of cows, careering past tuk-tuks, cutting up cars and trucks with utter gay abandon.  One lady ventured to cross the road, only to be grabbed back at the last second by her companion, fortunately, as our driver wouldn’t even have seen her but would certainly have hit her.  A little further on, once again with no warning or safety checks in place, repairs were once again being made to the highway this time by men tarring the road, yes, with hot molten tar, wearing flip flops.

Other sights that are commonplace are people clinging onto the back of, or sitting on the roof of a bus/van doing over 70 kph. It is quite extraordinary.  Of course these are the things I managed to make note of as we careered in and out of traffic and hazards, accelerating and braking heavily in equal measure.  My seat, as it was, being just behind the driver, meant that the windscreen acted as a giant TV screen that was bearing down on the world and I didn’t miss a thing, alarmingly.

I finally saw a traffic jam up ahead and breathed, probably for the first time in over an hour as I assumed we would get a respite from the trauma of the journey.  Silly me, the driver, in a brief moment when his eyes were on the road, spotted this whilst simultaneously seeing a gap in the central reservation.  He immediately threw all his strength into yanking the steering wheel a sharp right, resulting in a manoeuvre  only ever bettered by Sandra Bullock in Speed. However, in a twist that I am not sure Sandra then had to contend with, we spent the next 2kms, with barely a break in speed, playing chicken with the oncoming traffic, though considerately carving a path for the drivers who then decided to follow in our path.

We eventually arrived safely at Behror, the half way stopping point and the sighs of relief of my fellow passengers were as audible as the air brakes of the bus releasing themselves.  All too soon we had to climb back aboard and set off once more.  We knew we were in trouble when the driver refused to slow down as we approached a large and busy cross roads. In my prime seat position, I could clearly see that a mini-bus was approaching from the left, with a driver who also seemed to be in a dreadful hurry.  Now, in 17 years, I have never been in a road accident in India. I have likened traffic there to be like cartoon cars that seem to breathe in to get through an impossible gap, but even I could see that this was an encounter that was inevitable. And it was.  Not 10 seconds later, despite the traffic police looking on, the mini bus crashed into our right hand side, smashing the glass of the passenger door into smithereens.  This seemed to wake up the police who came over and made us all get off the bus. As we were standing around wondering what would happen next, and how, and if, we would ever make it back to Delhi, the traffic cops decided that that was their job done for the day and headed off for a well-deserved chai break.   Our driver, seizing this opportunity, hustled us all back onto the bus and set off once more up the highway from hell.  He didn’t even sweep the shattered glass from the steps or the aisle of the bus.

During the three windy, chilly and harrowing hours which it took to complete our journey, I had seriously questioned my sanity.  Why hadn’t I taken the train, a 5 hour journey for £5.00? Why had I thought that saving the INR6000.00/£60.00 it would have cost for a flight, or a private chauffeur driven Innova, was a good idea? Many people seem to think I am brave, however I think bravery and stupidity are very closely linked and this decision had definitely been made out of stupidity.  After what seemed like an eternity, the signs for Delhi were in sight. As we passed Gurgaon (the satellite city south of Delhi) the first signboard I saw was for a ‘Trauma Centre,’ and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was solely for survivors of a Volvo Bus journey on the NH8.

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