Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cities by cycle

There’s something particularly pleasing about twin benefits. Apart from being twice as nice, they’re doubly rewarding too. Picking up a bicycle on a holiday is one such happy union that accomplishes the vows of wellness along with laying out the thrills of adventure. It allows you to stay toned even as your bag of exciting tales fills to the brim.

Cycling gives the traveller an opportunity to uncoil and discover the veiled charms of a city and countryside at a relaxed pace. India offers innumerable escapes on varied canvas. From rural lanes to city bylanes, backwaters to deep sea, the footsteps of history to inspiring mountain districts, experiences can be found neatly stringed and almost-always a few pedals away.

Tough terrain bicycling isn’t everyone’s cup of coffee and that’s where city-cycling rides in as a worthy alternative. Whereas the honks and halts of traffic in most urban spaces can make leisure cycling tough business, there are some cities tailor-made for touring on two wheels. An all-terrain-bike performs perfectly in all conditions. It’s extremely rugged and can take ample wear and tear, even a minor collision! Do remember to keep chain-links and tubes handy; and lest you forget, fret not. This is India, and quite remarkably the UMCT—under mango or coconut tree—cycle repairmen can mend it all.  

One of the most beautiful heritage cities of the country, with a lake-hotel that’s been voted amongst the most romantic in the world, Udaipur is a showpiece of Rajasthan. It packs in all attributes of the desert state: vibrant colours, formidable forts, royalty, captivating craft et al in a heady package. It’s labyrinth of narrow lanes spilling over with traditional charms and local food makes the cycle the ideal transport to get up close and personal with it. Every turn throws up a new discovery and the first-timer always comes away awe-stuck. The City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola, built by the Mewar dynasty, is its jewel in the crown. The other gems include Bagore ki Haveli;  Jagdish Temple and the touristy attractions around it; Ahar Museum and Saheliyon-ki-Bari, a garden for royal ladies; and the Monsoon Palace atop a hill.
Excursions: Kumbhalgarh Fort  (84 km/2.5 hrs) is an impregnable medieval citadel with an incredible 36-km perimeter wall.  Ranakpur (90 km) for Jain marble temples. 

The village of Choglamsar, a few km from Leh city, was devastated by flash floods earlier this year. Even in gloom, the resilient Ladakhi is managing to wear a smile. Amongst those helping in its rebuilding are travellers from around the world who had come to explore its terrain. There can’t be a better time to volunteer your services and combine that with a cycling tour of the breathtaking high-altitude desert in the lap of commanding mountain ranges, which remains just as alluring despite nature’s fury having destroyed a part of it. Leh city in itself is typically backpacker and the tarmac connecting it with nearby monastery spots as Hemis, Shey, Thiksey etc is smooth as silk. Pedaling around Leh means riding a terrain where the air is thin and requires immense stamina and determination. It’s tough but worth every muscle that’s exerted.
Excursions: Pangong Tso, a mesmeric salt-water lake; Nubra Valley, the green territory of cold desert Ladakh, was once part of the silk route; it’s accessed through Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass.

Designed by a Swiss-French architect, Chandigarh has tree-lined avenues and wide, clean arterial streets, making it a roadies’ delight. It’s also perhaps the only city in the country to have dedicated cycle tracks, running through lush canopies, across the checkered grid town-plan.

Chandigarh is a planned city and cycling around town brings its contemporary built-heritage face to face. It also boasts of an envious green cover and the most attractive route to enjoy its verdant vistas and simultaneously follow its chief architectural trail is to cycle on Jan Marg. This goes past Sector 17, the city’s bustling shopping piazza, and the manicured Rose Garden which is an irresistible spot during the blooming season from October to February. A little ahead are museums and a string of assorted gardens. The road ends at the Capitol Complex, Sector 1, considered the masterwork of founding architect, Le Corbusier. From here begins Uttar Marg, which has the globally-acclaimed Rock Garden and the picturesque Sukhna Lake.
Excursions: The Himalayan foothills, ideal for mountain biking, are a short distance away and have numerous spots for day/weekend trips. Pinjore is known for the Mughal Gardens. Kasauli, Chail, Barog exude quietude. Further on is Shimla.

There’s a constant merger of cultures at this southern India outpost in the Coromandel Coast. Cosmopolitan Pondicherry, though, is more like a mixed salad bowl, where each flavour stands out in the homogenous blend. The dominant essence, however, is still unmistakably French—dating back to the time it was colonised for France by Joseph François Dupleix in AD 1742—and this connection remains its drawing power.

In earlier times the city was sliced into two sharp quarters. Those demarcations have blurred but architecturally while the western end has developed into a bustling modern space, the eastern or the French/European-influenced side retains its quaint charms. This quarter is bordered by the rocky coast, with four beaches, and has relatively unfrequented narrow lanes, alluring French street names, elegant Mediterranean architecture with homes typically painted in soothing white or happy-bright colours, sunlit porches, languorously twining bougainvilleas, trendy shops, inviting cafes, boutique hotels and the magnet amongst them all, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. These features combine to make it ideal for pedaling through at a pace of your own.
Excursions: Auroville, or City of Dawn, an experimental, self-sustainable township, is 8 km away; Tranquebar is a former Danish settlement; Mahabalipuram offers remarkable open-air heritage of rock-cut, monolithic, bas-relief structures dating to the 7th century Pallava period.

The joys of being on a cycle saddle in God’s Own Country means slowing down at short intervals and soaking up its verdant lures: spice/coffee/tea plantations, swaying coconut palm trees under azure skies, miles of lush paddy fields etc. Kochi, a bustling city, presents a pleasing combination of nature’s magic as well as a contrasting canvas of urban spaces that include tucked country roads, spanking tarmac, terracotta tile-roofed homes and glitzy glass-steel structures, all of it around a series of tremendously-idyllic waterchannels. Cycle a short distance away and there’s Fort Kochi, the ancient port city, which stands by a calm beach dotted with Chinese fishing nets. It’s seen many a foreign influence and offers its own brand of quaint inheritance. It’s shady avenues, heritage hotels, spice shops, touristy Jew Town, Tamil temples, all add up to present a locale ideal to bike around.
Excursions: Kumarakom, about 90 km away, on the banks of the Vembanad Lake has a clutch of excellent resorts and the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary popular with birders from around the world; Alappuzha or Allepy, is known for the scenic beauty of its backwaters. The popular snake boat races are held on Punnamada Lake near the town.

Published in JetWings, 2010

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