Iron bikes, which fill Indian roads, stand for sale as traffic rolls by a busy street in Aligarh. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

It takes a hardy soul, and strong legs, to cycle the Grand Trunk. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

NPR correspondents are taking The Two-Way with them along the historic Grand Trunk Road that stretches from the Bay of Bengal in the east to the Hindu Kush mountains in the west, across the Indian subcontinent. They're preparing an upcoming Morning Edition series about life along the route, and we've been getting reports from them since April 14. Click here to see all of the team's posts.

As Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep says, "a new generation is growing up along that ancient road" and the show will be telling the stories of those young Indians and Pakistanis who face vast opportunities -- and vast problems. Meanwhile, here is the team's latest dispatch:

By Philip Reeves

It is impossible to explore the route of the old Grand Trunk Road for very long without forming a deep admiration for one particular fellow traveler.

We have seen him -- it is invariably a man -- many, many times during the more than 900 miles that we've now covered between India's eastern metropolis, Kolkata (or Calcutta), and its capital, New Delhi.

Sometimes he wears a turban, wrapped around his head as protection against the intense heat and dust. On bright sunny days -- or in the rain -- he'll slide along beneath an umbrella.

He is thin, wiry, and weather-beaten. He seems undeterred by the hefty trucks that thunder by, at times only missing him by inches.

There are hundreds of millions of bicyclists in India. The cyclist of the Grand Trunk Road is surely among the hardiest and most intrepid of them all.

He is very different from the cyclists you'll see silently spinning along the country lanes of the U.S. or western Europe. Banish from your mind any thoughts of Spandex shorts, helmets, cycle lanes, mountain bikes, or the feather-weight 30-gear whippets-on-wheels that can out-pace a motor scooter.

Our man is doggedly grinding along the road on the two-wheel equivalent of a tank. The sit-up-and-beg design of his bike hasn't changed significantly since Mahatma Gandhi went on his Salt March, his famous challenge against British colonial rule.

It has only one gear, and a bucket-like saddle. At the front, there's a metal hook for a wicker basket. At the back, above the wheel, there's a flat metal rack capable of carrying up to 70 kilograms (about 154 pounds) of human being. That can be two adults in India.

This lug of a machine is India's workhorse. It plays a crucial part of the economy. Urban Indians use it to commute. Rural Indians use it to carry food, fuel and produce to and from the market place.

In the last two weeks, we've seen bikes wobbling along with heavy steel milk churns strapped to their sides. We've seen them carrying breathtakingly tall payloads -- giant turrets of sacks and boxes, even trays of eggs.

A bike shop owner in Aligarh. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

Santosh Kumar: His bikes start at $45. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

During the latest leg of our journey, we stopped at a bike repair shop in Aligarh to have a closer look at one of these machines. The storekeeper, Santosh Kumar, told us that an Indian-made bike costs between the equivalent of $45 and $60. Spare parts seem cheap to western ears -- though not to most rural Indians. A new tire starts at less than $2; you can get a new wheel for under $4.

I lifted up one of these bikes -- a grandly-named Hero Jet, a very popular make. Its weight was astonishing. The storekeeper said the frame was made of iron; it seemed to be built to survive the roughest of mud country lanes.

As India's consumer class grows in size, modern leisure and sports bikes have begun to appear in the shops. Some have splendid names. There's a "Beast" and a "Beauty", a "Soldier" and "Dove", a "Viper" and a "Fighter" and a "Stallion".

But it will be a very long time indeed before we see the Cyclist of the Grand Trunk Road whizzing along on one of those.


Just outside Noida at a railroad crossing, a bicyclist waits inches away from the train to continue his journey. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)

Even the intrepid cyclist must wait for a train to pass. (Kainaz Amaria for NPR)



categories: Afghanistan, Grand Trunk Road, India, Pakistan

8:52 - April 26, 2010