Driving a Psychedelic Rickshaw across India

rickshaw race

A rickshaw race, a two thousand kilometre journey across India in a beat-up rickshaw named Tinkerbell…

I entered India from Pakistan using the famous Wagah Border crossing, I was the only foreigner on the Pakistani side and, after three months of backpacking across Iran and Pakistan, it was a hell of a change to be surrounded by so many foreigners… Yoga-fiends and wrinkled tour groups, dreadlocked hipsters and adventure wannabes, India is a popular stop on the backpacker trail and feels very, very different to Pakistan.

I crashed out for a night in the free dorms at the Golden Temple, Sikh hospitality in India is a magic weapon for budget backpackers, and spent the evening soaking in the relative tranquillity of my favourite religious site in all of India.

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The Golden Temple in India at night

The next day, I headed to Delhi where I was instantly ripped off by a street dealer selling sub-par weed. Ah, how I missed the plentiful and usually free hash of Pakistan… My brother, Alex, arrived into Delhi and together we tracked down the street dealer, got my money back and caught an overnight train to Jaisalmer; it was time to meet our rickshaw.

I pulled back the orange tarp excitedly, psychedelic patterns rushed to meet us, I was stoked. I sat in the driver’s seat, turned the key and… nothing.

Not even the faintest of wheezes.

Alex ran off into the street and returned with a bemused looking rickshaw driver, a tall guy with dark eyes and a scar above one eye, he introduced himself as Suman. He tutted, moved me to one side and turned the key. Nothing.

‘Ah, this rickshaw very old…’ he said, knowingly.

Together, we dragged the rickshaw onto the street and sat down with Suman. Wanting to get our rickshaw working as fast as possible, and keen for a few mods, we spoke to Suman for ten minutes and he arranged to get the rickshaw sorted whilst we headed off for a day of exploring the giant yellow sandcastle that is Jaisalmer.

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The sandstone ruins of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is probably one of my favourite places to explore in all of India. With incredible architecture, stunning sunsets, a labyrinth of twisting back alleys and chilled backpacker vibes, it’s one of the best places to relax in Rajasthan.

Even better, it’s one of a handful of places in India that has a legal bhang shop. Bhang is the edible part of marijuana and has been used in India for thousands of years for spiritual reasons and general merriment. I chilled with Alex and we caught up on brotherly things; mostly girls, Sci-Fi movies and our plan to open an off-the-grid commune in the jungles of Colombia

We sat sipping on Bhang shakes and watching the orange sun slant low over the battlements and towers of the city. As the day came to an end, the sky turned to blue and then black, thousands of stars coming out, the moon illuminating the orange sandstone as we wandered through the alleys, hopelessly lost and helplessly amused.

The next couple of days passed by in a bit of a blur as we took to the surrounding desert on camelback and chilled out upon the battlements, plotting our hectic route across India on a crumpled map.

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If only we had managed to go in lines that were even half this straight…

We awoke early, the heat of the day still at bay, and shouldered our packs, pushing the hangovers to the back of our minds and cursing each other for suggesting drinks. Suman appeared out of the morning mist like some kind of spirit-sage and led us wordlessly to our rickshaw.

‘She is ready’

She most certainly fucking was. Purring and raring to go, she gleamed all over and the multi-coloured patterns seemed even brighter than before. I noted a bright orange roof-rack, a sound system wedged behind the seats and a USB filled with Indian music ready to rock and roll. I made my own final touch; attaching a couple of lines of Buddhist prayer flags to either side for luck.

Suman handed me a small packet of cookies, shook my hand and disappeared with a puff of smoke, ganja drifting on the wind.

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Onwards!

Hungry, I instantly devoured my cookies and got into the driving seat. Alex took up the role of navigating me the hell out of the crazy streets and together we left Jaisalmer, the gigantic sandcastle receding behind us as we took to the highway and headed into the tangerine desert.

The sun, rising upon the horizon, crept across the sand and instantly began to cook us as I hit the gas, Indian-techno blasting through the stereo, and we got to grips with the truly awful steering. Avoiding potholes, the prayer flags flapping madly, Alex rolling an emergency joint in the back (just in case), we careened at a manic, or so it seemed, fifty kilometres an hour down the road, the only vehicle in sight.

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Indian scenes from the road…

‘What did you do with your opium cookies?’ 

Alex asked me, shouting above the endless buzzing of the rickshaw engine and the pounding techno.

Opium cookies? Shit.

The opium hit me as we reached the middle of the desert, endless nothingness stretching away on both sides, the road cracked and parched, my vision blurry, mirages dancing on the horizon.

Alex took over driving and, like me, struggled to get to grips with the horrifically sticky clutch. He handled it like a champ and we managed to get the rickshaw racing again at a whopping fifty five kilometers an hour… I looked at my map, this was going to take fucking forever. I’d pushed lawnmowers that were faster than this. It didn’t matter, I reasoned with myself, the adventure is about the journey, not the destination.

That was when the rickshaw broke down for the first time… Slap back in the middle of the Thar Desert. Thirty five kilometres of nothing, in both directions, between us and civilisation.

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Alex surveying the situation…

We waited by the side of the road, a nearby camel startling and running further into the wild, and snacked upon some stale sandwiches we had made the day before using naan and babybell, it felt like a feast. Alex broke out the emergency joint and we sat, pondering our next move and more importantly what the hell we should name our rickshaw.

We debated backwards and forwards, finally settling on Tinkerbell because, frankly, it was going to take some serious magic to get this thing across India. Out of nowhere, an armada of gaily painted rickshaws turned up in the middle of the desert… Apparently, there was some kind of actual organised rickshaw race going on at exactly the same time which we had no idea about.

This whole situation seemed so surreal as a rickshaw disguised as the Bat-mobile screeched to a stop and a couple of Australian lads got out and added their assessment to ours.

‘It’s fucked mate, how did you get a head-start on the rickshaw race anyway?’

I explained that we’re not actually with the rickshaw race and had instead independently gotten hold of our own rickshaw by renting it with our own plan of racing it across India… Our odds of winning suddenly seemed to deprecate wildly now that a hundred teams had turned up out of nowhere.

About ten teams stopped to try and help us but our beloved Tinkerbell was truly fucked, already, just thirty five kilometers outside of Jaisalmer, it wasn’t the best start… Finally, a couple of Indians with a pick-up truck arrived and we tied the world’s shortest rope to the front wheel of the rickshaw. They took off madly as me and Alex both grunted and used all of our strength to try and keep the wheel straight as we bounced along the road at a frightening speed with almost zero control.

We finally arrived in a town and found a mechanic who had to weld shut our engine, which resembled shrapnel, for the princely sum of about four dollars… Apparently, we had blown the engine by going too fast; perhaps fifty five kilometres had been pushing it after all.

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So…. you fix today?

After a restless night in a dingy hotel, we took off the next day, determined to escape the desert and make it to the holy town of Pushkar. Travelling with your own transport in India opens your eyes to a whole different side of the country you would not normally see…

Dying weeds pushed their way up through the cracked soil as we passed through small towns with humble dwellings and pigs snuffling at garbage. Children chased our colourful rickshaw as we raced past huge gaily painted buses, our prayer flags flapping in the wind, dodging suicidal cows and Indians desperately jumping in front of us to try and get a selfie.

We paused often, to refill the rickshaw with gasoline and oil, which we mixed in manually to avoid the ancient engine failing yet again.

After a couple of days of pushing our rickshaw through the streets of Pushkar, we decided to head on out to one of my favourite places in India; the often overlooked town of Bundi and its famous, abandoned, fortress. 

We took to the road and almost instantly ran into trouble as a couple of Indians on a motorbike crashed into us at a turning and a mob quickly developed around us. Alex valiantly rushed to the rescue and managed to get Tinkerbell moving again, an almost impossible task single-handed, whilst I tussled with a bunch of Indians and pushed people away trying to extort money from us. In the fray, somebody somehow stole my jacket from the back seat of Tinkerbell.

Half an hour later and we were being stalked by four Indians on two motorbikes. It wasn’t clear if they were the same fuckers from earlier but they quickly caught up with us and tried to box us in from the road whilst taking photos on their phones.

We behaved friendly enough at first, keen to avoid a Mad Max situation in our flimsy rickshaw but the situation tumbled out of control much faster than anticipated. One of the Indians riding pillion mimed that he had a gun and reached into his jacket whilst hurling abuse at us.

At this point I thought ‘fuck it’ and veered into them, missing by inches and sending them careening off the road. The other bike sped ahead, stopping a couple of hundred metres in front of us, blocking the road and dismounting to pick up rocks. Alex bought out the ’emergency battle staffs’ and we paused for a quick smoke, keen to avoid any rash decisions – it’s important to remain calm when this kind of thing happens…

The bike I had shunt off the road turned up again, buzzing past us and stopping up ahead. A heated debate began between the four Indians and then, suddenly, they turned and sped towards us. Unsure if this was a genuine battle situation or not, we held our ground. They slowed, spat at us, and sped off.

Such is backpacking in India

We continued on our way quickly, keen to avoid another encounter with the ‘biker gang’ in case they had gone to properly arm themselves. We turned off the main road and headed down a dirt track and onwards to Bundi…

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Bundi; one of my favourite places in India…

Bundi is a truly magical place, a quaint little town sitting at the edge of a tranquil blue lake from which a pagoda rises out of the water. An ancient fortress and magnificent palace stand watch over the town, the impressive battlements surrounding the whole area in a protective ring.

We sit atop a rooftop, Tinkerbell parked safely below, the sun painting the sky shades of orange and pink and think back on the day just gone. It’s been a tough one – exhausting push-starts in forty plus degrees, the crash and the tussle, the Indian biker gang, we deserved a break.

We vowed to chill out a few days in Bundi, to explore the fort and, of course, to work on our rickshaw rap. We quickly discovered that nothing really rhymes with rickshaw, tuk tuk, on the other hand, was a goldmine of awful rhymes…

Whilst in Bundi, we spent a truly incredible day exploring Bundi’s incredible fort, fighting off baboons and soaking in the tranquillity of one of India’s best preserved towns.

Eventually, the time came to leave Bundi – we had to race the rickshaw up to Delhi so Alex could catch his flight and I could meet Esme and continue with Tinkerbell into the foothills of The Himalayas (it sounded like a good idea at the time)…

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Heading into the Himalayas and passing sunflower fields…

Driving a rickshaw 2500km across India over six weeks proved to be a totally nuts experience; it was, to my surprise, probably one of the toughest things I had ever attempted – mostly because we had to push-start the damn thing multiple times a day.

Over six weeks, myself and Alex, and then me and Esme, developed a genuine love-hate bond with Tinkerbell. We got to know her wheezing, spluttering noises very well. I welded parts of her back together, tied important looking pieces to each other when they fell off in the middle of the road, I despaired, I wailed at her, I hugged her when she worked and cursed her when she didn’t. Ultimately though, I fell in love with Tinkerbell a little bit and I can only hope that at some point, I can return to India to set her free and drive her around the world…

Our rickshaw race was an absolutely incredible bonding experience for myself and Alex and we truly did get to see a side of India that I had never seen before; even after spending a year and a half backpacking in India. For a real adventure, grab a rickshaw and drive it across India… 

5% Discount off your own rickshaw race adventure

We were kindly sponsored in India by The Rickshaw Challenge – these guys organise crazy rickshaw racing events all across India and can also simply rent you a rickshaw if you want to go on your own adventure.

Broke Backpacker readers get a 5% discount on The Rickshaw Challenge and all Travel Scientist Adventures – simply visit the Travel Scientist page, choose your adventure and request info; once you get the email from Travel Scientists, reply with the discount code: Broke Backpacker.

VISIT TRAVEL SCIENTISTS AND GET 5% OFF ON ALL ADVENTURES

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Trying to regain some inner peace…

6 Things Nobody Told Me About Driving a Rickshaw…

Driving a rickshaw across India turned out to be a truly amazing experience. There were however quite a few things that nobody told me about driving a rickshaw or driving in India in general. Keen to go on your own Rickshaw Challenge? Here’s everything you need to know about racing a rickshaw across India… 

Selfie-taking Indians are suicidal

One of the single biggest dangers we encountered on the road was Indians spotting us and driving to within inches of our vehicle at insane speeds whilst attempting to lean out the window and shake hands or take photos. This would be hard to deal with on normal roads but in India, when your navigating past cows and elephants, potholes and children, it becomes even tougher when you are chased by multiple motorbikes and cars wanting to take your photo. On the other hand; there is a chance a blurry photo of you will make it into a national paper, we did! Often, your sole objective will be to NOT stop your rickshaw, so you end up dodging and diving around these insane phot0-seekers in the hopes that you won’t have to push your rickshaw.

You WILL have to push your rickshaw

I’ve heard of some lucky souls who managed to drive a rickshaw across India with zero breakdowns but let’s be honest – these guys are clearly blessed in a way that most people are not. If you’re like me, and you’ve pissed off some Indian Gods in your time, chances are your rickshaw will break down a lot and eventually get to a point where you can only get the engine ticking over by push-starting it. This can be absolutely exhausting, especially when it sometimes takes five or more attempts to get the damn thing going. Luckily, despite being suicidal and curious, most Indians are also pretty damn friendly and will rush to your aid if you encourage them to do so.

Mix oil with your fuel

The single biggest tip I can give you – for the love of Vishnu, mix oil with your fuel; it’s your best chance of the engine remaining in one piece. We sadly didn’t know that the fuel did not already have oil mixed in and that’s why we lost our first engine in just thirty five kilometres.

A bust engine can be fixed with duct tape and prayer

Luckily, in India, everything can be fixed with a bit of duct tape and a quick favour from Ganesh. The road-side mechanics can usually patch up most problems for under a couple of dollars and we got pretty damn good at tying, welding and forcing parts of our rickshaw back together with brute strength. Bring a pack of tie-wraps, they will be endlessly useful…

There ain’t nothing like rocking up to a hostel in a rickshaw

Arriving at a backpacker hostel in a multi-coloured rickshaw is probably the suavest way to impress fellow adventurers on the road. Myself and Alex had numerous girls asking for a ride in the rickshaw; this would have been great except that with four people crammed into the back, our top speed was a measly eighteen kilometres an hour. Still, it’s a cool way to make an entrance.

A Rickshaw Race is the ultimate bonding experience

At the end of the day, driving a rickshaw across India was exhausting. It was challenging. We would drive for twelve hours a day sometimes, the countryside whizzing by in one insane multi-coloured blur. This mental adventure was, however, hands down, the best thing I have ever done with my brother, Alex. If you have somebody solid by your side, the rickshaw race offers an incredible opportunity for you to bond. I hadn’t seen my bro for a while and this challenge really threw us back together. We didn’t fall out once – we got shit done and we got it done right. I would definitely do it all over again – but only with him.

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Chilling out after a hard day on the road…

Drive your own rickshaw across India

Whether you want to sign up to your own rickshaw race, rent a rickshaw for a few weeks or outright buy a rickshaw in India; Travel Scientists are the people to chat to – drop them an email and remember to use the 5% discount code – BrokeBackpacker.

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