Thursday, June 22, 2017

Day 7 - New Jalpaiguri to Lucknow - 2 June 2017

Last night the cook had said that he could serve me tea at whatever time I wanted. I needed only hot water as I had premix coffee to complete the early morning concoction. After dutifully presenting the hot water the cook helped me with the luggage and saw me off. It had rained quite heavily overnight. The Champion had been drenched as she was parked in the open. It is about 650 km from New Jalpaiguri to Gorakhpur, which was scheduled as the night halt destination. To avoid the Dalkhola stretch I took NH12A and 54/27 via Araria and Muzzafarpur. The road upto Aaria was definitely bad, but the rest of it ranged from good to excellent. The 4 am start definitely helped because the small villages I passed through in the early hours were still quiet; but one feature I noticed was the early morning walkers and joggers in those small villages. 
I was scheduled to stay in the ORH in Gorakhpur. My contact in the Railway Board informed that the accommodation had been arranged at the railway station. I was a bit apprehensive about leaving the loaded car overnight in a public parking place. Hence, I located another friend who had worked for a considerable time in Gorakhpur to get better accommodation organized. He helped and I was given details of the revised allocation. The progress up to Gorakhpur was better than expected and before 1 pm I was in Gorakhpur. With the help of Secretary to General Manager of NER I reached the ORH. I was mightily disappointed by the way the premises were maintained and, to top it all, I was told that they could not give me even a cup of tea. I had even time left in the day and chose the option of driving through to Lucknow; a further distance of 270 km. After refreshing myself in the ORH and attending to some office work, in under two hours, I set off to Lucknow. In fact, my friend Rajiv Shah also ‘pushed’ me to get ahead of the schedule and reach Lucknow that day. He confirmed that he could organize accommodation in that city at short notice. So, when I started from Gorakhpur I informed him of the change of plans; eh was already aware of it as he was tracking the drive, almost minute to minute.
If I had not chosen to get into Gorakhpur city I would have reached Lucknow even before 5 pm. Once I left the crowded Gorakhpur city and got to the highway I was able to gather better speed. I reached Lucknow before 7 pm. Even though I had many ‘near misses’ during the day due to poor driving habits and crass indiscipline I covered the farthest distance this day covering 914 kms in under 15 hours. And, Rajiv Shah ensured that I had a more than decent place to rest for the night. He had made arrangements to stay at the Sarovar Portico Hotel in Hazratganj area of Lucknow.
After I had set course for Lucknow I got in touch with my IRTS batchmate, Rajendra Tripathi, who was settled in Lucknow, post his retirement. I knew that I would not have time to go to his lovely apartment, done up so well by his artist wife, Namitha. The next best thing was to meet over dinner. We arranged to meet at the hotel I was staying by 7.30 pm and he was ‘before time’. It was wonderful to meet up with RD, as I call him. He is the serious one in our batch, but I enjoyed a special camaraderie with him. Nowadays we keep in touch on Facebook and WhatsApp. He asked my preference of food; it had to be a light snack/meal that was typical of the city. RD suggested the Royal Café in the neighborhood. While travelling through the busy parts of Hazratganj RD introduced me to the concept of Ganjing, made popular by Vinod Mehta in his book, A Lucknow Boy. I understood that Ganjing stood for an outing with friends to chase girls, chat with acquaintances and make new ones, admire and envy fashion and savour chaats, kulfis and golgappas, et al. While chasing girls was not an option, due to age and overdose, I decided to enjoy the specialty of the Café, the Basket Chaat. It was so huge that we shared it. I only asked that curd be avoided in the chat; but the ‘dahi vada’ is an unavoidable ingredient in it! The ‘basket’ in which it is served is edible too. no meal is complete without something sweet. Falooda Kulfi was suggested by the waiter and we ordered one each; it was mouthwatering stuff.

RD dropped me off at the hotel where I was staying and I completed the documentation before dozing off. I am nearly 300 km ahead of my schedule at this stage and the next day’s halt is in Noida, in the apartment of another batchmate, Ashok Kumar. I sniffed the opportunity to ‘extend the lead’, in a manner of speaking. But then, tomorrow is another day. I also have to take a decision regarding the route to and from the second corner, Leh – whether it would be via Manali or Srinagar.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Day 6 - Numaligarh to New Jalpaiguri - 1 June 2017

Late last evening I was joined by Bhattacharya, GM HR of the refinery, who had arranged all for me in the guest house. I was told that the Rs. 12,000 crore turnover company, NRL, employs just 850! It’s bottom-line, I am sure, would be the envy of many corporates. The refinery also discharged its corporate social responsibility with utmost respect to the society and its constituents, developing team spirt and healthy living through sports, education, village programs and building of toilets and school infrastructure. The speed of the team is the speed of the leader, it is said. Therefore, Mr Padmanabhan is due a large share of the kudos that the team of NRL justly deserves.

I wished I had at least a spare day to spend more time in that wonderful environment. If I wait to start after breakfast I will be drowned in the traffic of trucks on the highway. Therefore, I set off as usual at 4.30 am, with the sky already lit.  The drive from the refinery to via Guwahati to the border at Srirampur was a breeze. In just over three hours I was sailing through Guwahati. The roads were very good and traffic sparse. However, it took me some time to get through the hustle of school and office shift traffic in Guwahati. In another two hours I was at the West Bengal border. Since I had just another 250 km to go for the day to New Jalpaiguri and the eyes were a bit weary, I decided to drop in at the Alipurduar ORH for a cup of tea around noon.

Aneet Dulat IRTS, Chief Commercial Manager, North Frontier Railway was my colleague in the railways when I worked in South Eastern Railway. He had arranged ORH accommodation in Alipurduar, New Jalpaiguri and Guwahati. On the approach to New Jalpaiguri I stopped for fueling and the weather suddenly changed. I became terribly windy and the power supply got cut off. Thereafter, I experienced severe squally weather, sometimes even unable to drive. Fortunately, that didn’t last long and in a half hour it cleared up. At New Jalpaiguri arrangements had been made in the Railway Electrification ORH, where I reached after driving 721 km in 11 hours 45 minutes that day. It is a relatively new ORH and the accommodation was very comfortable. Due to the weather power was quite unsteady for a few hours. The boys at the ORH agreed to wash the Champion, who thoroughly deserved the attention she got later in the evening. I got enough time to rearrange stuff inside the bags and luggage inside the car.

New Jalpaiguri is an important terminus of the railway, for both freight and passenger traffic. Before gauge conversion this was a critical break of gauge terminus. Passengers coming from other parts of the country by Broad Gauge had to board a Meter Gauge train for Silchar, Guwahati, Lumding, etc. similarly, freight used to be transshipped at this point. Therefore, a senior Area Manager is posted here. When the incumbent came to meet me he told me that the post had been upgraded and re-designated as Station Director. This, to my mind, has been a completely ill-conceived idea. Instead of the railways delayering, it is engaged in building additional layers and diluting responsibility. The work of the Station Manager has been kicked up to the Station Director.

The cook at the guest house gave me excellent egg curry with potato sabji and rotis. A filling, hot meal. Before the repast I had time to evaluate options to reach Leh. The route via Manali seemed to be closed due to road repair works and the news emanating from J&K were disconcerting. I had to take a call before I reached Noida in the next two days. I prayed for HIS intervention and show me the way, as it were.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Day 5 - Tinsukia to Tezu to Numaligarh - 31 May 2017

It was raining by the time I woke up to get ready. Pre-monsoon showers had already arrived and it would rain almost every day, I was told. The hotel was pitch dark as the power supply had gone off some time during the night and the generator had not been switched on. As I had to get ready I walked cautiously to the hotel reception holding the mobile phone to show me the stairway. I woke up a chap sleeping on a sofa and asked him to switch on the power backup. In a short while the lights came on and I was able to make my cup of coffee to start up the day.

I had first met Seju Kuruvilla when he was Superintendent of Police (SP) of Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh, based in Tezu, during my East-West expedition in 2013. The smart and handsome police officer and his wife Megna, who is an IPS officer too, treated me like family. Since then I have sought his help whenever a trip to Arunachal was planned, even though he and his wife are now posted in Daman. This time was no different either. Despite being on vacation he arranged to get me the Inner Line Permit (ILP) over a couple of mail exchanges. The ILP is required to travel in Arunachal Pradesh. Different ILPs are required for different parts of the state. The duration is also mentioned in the ILP.

The other resource I invariably tap is Rajesh who works for Arunachal Pradesh police. He had been deputed to accompany me from Tinsukia on my first drive to Tezu. At that time, in 2013, the border areas with Assam were disturbed and just a day before I was to leave for Tezu there had been a bomb attack on the border post at Kakopathar.  Many surrendered militants are housed in a special complex in this area. The situation was extremely tense and Seju considered it prudent for me to be accompanied by Rajesh. He was very interesting company and I got to know and understand the life and people of that area because of his almost encyclopedic knowledge and keen sense of observation. This time I needed suggestions from him regarding the road condition, the route and assistance to get the log sheet attested. I had read about the new bridge over the Brahmaputra that had been inaugurated by the PM a few weeks before, which took off a short distance from Tinsukia. Rajesh advised me against taking that since the road condition was not that good and it would be a longer route. He suggested the route via Alubari, where another bridge had come up across the Brahmaputra. The bridge had been under construction when I last went to Tezu in 2015 during the Trans-Himalayan expedition. In 2013 and 2015 I had crossed the river on a ferry that was made up of a raft on two wooden boats, powered by a couple of motors. Swift currents and the sight of a couple of handymen bailing water out of the boats could be a mightily scary experience r romantic depending on the age and mental condition of the traveler! When it rains, as it was copiously today, ferry crossings used to get shifted, even overnight. Rajesh had also spoken to the SHO of the Tezu police station to do the required attestation.

At the hotel I was told that it would take me about four hours to reach Tezu, but the decision to leave for Tezu at 4 am turned out to be a masterstroke. There was hardly any traffic on the road, save the cattle and horses that freely roamed around. I passed through the Kakopathar check post without being stopped. When I reached the Arunachal Pradesh border at Dirak I was asked to park the car and present myself to the post with papers of the car. After details of the car were entered in a register kept for the purpose, I presented the ILP too, which was found in order. The road up to Alubari was quite good and I made good progress. I knew that I had to take a turn to the right somewhere from a junction, but was not so sure. At that moment I found a gentlemen shielded from the rain by an umbrella getting out of his house. There was no sign of any activity at that time off the day; it was not yet 6 am. Mercifully that person showed me the turn off and for the next 30 minutes travelled through very lonely wooded areas across terrible roads. After what seemed like an era I reached the new bridge and then there was relief. Though the bridge has been completed the approach road on the Alubari side is still being compacted. In another season the access to Tezu would be pucca, I know. Once I got across the bridge I got excellent roads right up to Tezu and the drive was sheer magic with tall trees on either side of the road.

When I was about 15 minutes away from Tezu police station I rang up Ghosh, the SHO, who promised to come over to the station, even though it was not yet time for the official opening. I was greeted by the constable on guard duty at 6.30 am and made to occupy a comfortable chair inside the station. I had done the Tinsukia-Tezu segment of 128 km in just two and half hours! Ghosh came in quick time, apologized for keeping me waiting and completed the honors of attesting the log sheet. He also took down my details so that it would be entered in the station diary. In less than 30 minutes I started my return journey to Tinsukia, the first corner in the east done and dusted.

A cyclone warning had been issued last night. Despite the steady rain I was not inconvenienced. The return journey took a while longer as villages had come alive and I had to slow down. When the receptionist saw me at 10 am he asked if I was going or was already back! He was stunned to hear my morning exploit. He ordered an omlette and excellent pooris with potato curry for breakfast. And I feasted. Just before noon I was ready to start the next leg of the day’s journey, which was originally up to Jorhat. Last night, as I was pondering options I remembered Mr Padmanabhan who was MD of Numaligarh Refinery. He had played host in Guwahati during my expedition to Singapore. He had then invited me to spend some time in Numaligarh. I contacted him and he promptly made arrangements for my stay in the Refinery guest house, despite being on vacation with his family.

About 250 km remained for the rest of the day. Despite a leisurely drive and a brief halt in Hotel Piccollo in Sibsagar for a soup lunch I reached the refinery guest house at 6.30 pm. The setting of the guest house took my breath away. On the banks of a river, with deer and such other animals freely moving around, it was a fairytale end to the day. Since light faded very fast I could not enjoy the sights as much as I wanted. However, it was a tranquil location to relax the old bones, recover from the hectic schedule of the past few days and prepare for the toughest leg, Leh.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Day 4 - Alipurduar to Tinsukia - 30 May 2017

For a 4.30 am start I keep the alarm for an hour earlier. So, despite the late night after the grueling drive, I was ready in time in the Railway Officers' Rest House in Alipurduar. Light rain accompanied me to the Champion parked at the entrance of the ORH. The caretaker, as eager as ever, was there to see me off. A jolly fellow, he became extremely serious when I asked him to pose for me with the car, and it showed in the photo. To get to the highway I had to cross a level crossing gate near the ORH. At that time, however, the level crossing gate was open. The scheduled halt for the day was Sibsagar in Assam. Accommodation was not confirmed at this place prior; Rajiv Shah had taken on the responsibility of getting it done at short notice. I banked on his expertise in the field, as I knew how well connected and resourceful he is.

Within the hour of leaving Alipurduar I reached the Srirampur check post which is the border between West Bengal and Assam. I was amazed at how busy the check post has become. In 2010 when I traveled to Dhubri in Assam I had to take the Bakshirhat check post. The experience was not very pleasant, in fact it was downright scary. A mafia used to operate at the post to extort money and material from unsuspecting passenger car owners with ‘foreign’ car registration. They got very aggressive with me and I was ‘saved’ in the nick of time by the then Superintendent of Police, Dhubri. I later understood that cars stolen from different parts of the country are smuggled to Nagaland for sale and it is this segment that the mafia targets. After that experience I have steadfastly refused to take that border and travel via the Srirampur border. One reason why the Srirampur border was not popular till late is because the Bodoland issues had made that route risky. With seeming peace the border has become more intensively used. The second reason is that the roads from Srirampur to Guwahati via Bongaigaon and Rangia and further beyond up to Nagaon have become extremely good.

By about 4 pm I was at the outskirts of Sibsagar, where I was supposed to halt for the night. Except for short stretches, where the road was bad, the drive to Sibsagar had been smooth. Rajiv Shah had made arrangements for my stay at the Hotel Piccollo. At the last minute I decided to extend the day's drive to Tinsukia, which meant that another 130 km would have to be done for the day, knowing fully well that the drive from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia could delay me. The drive beyond Nagaon was scenically outstanding – tea gardens and the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary. The countryside of West Bengal and Assam are incredibly beautiful. I am certain that if it were not for the problems that beset these places, political and otherwise, tourism would have been a major stay of the economy of this region.

Showers ranging from light to heavy slowed my progress to Tinsukia. Despite that, a little after 6 pm I reached Hotel Highway for the night halt; 793 kms had been done in slightly under 14 hours. I was forced to take a superior room because the basic rooms were all damp and uncomfortable. At the time of checking in I informed the clerk that I would be leaving early morning for Tezu and returning to the hotel by 11 am, after which I would check out. He agreed to the suggestion. Over a very light meal I completed the documentation and turned in for the night, with the intention of waking up at 3 am for the next day’s schedule.

Day 3 - Kolkata to Alipurduar - 29 May 2017

I was rested and fresh to face the day’s drive, thanks to the decent accommodation in the NPG Hotel. Without any problem I eased onto the highway that would take me from Kolkata to Alipurduar via Malda. The smooth drive of the first two hours was no indication of what was to follow. The NH12 goes right through very densely populated villages. Encroachment by vendors, haphazard driving and irresponsible parking by public transport, animals and handcarts make the narrow highway roads further narrow. The villages become active by 7 am and after that transit became slow and stressful. Deep Banerjee had anticipated that Berhampore will be problematic to get through with all the traffic. It happened to be exactly that way. Every village slowed down progress dramatically as the day wore on. Filth and chaos added to the strain. Between 7 and 9 am I could just do 42 km! In fact, in just a few hours the journey moved from the City of Joy to a state of despair!

I had anticipated the maximum delay at Farakka. But this time, mercifully, that was not an issue. However, the trouble started immediately after Farakka. The notorious Kaliachak and Malda Town detained me quite a bit. It was all the more frustrating because the roads had been widened and bituminized. However, a feature of this region is the encroachment of public roads by taxi operators and private bus operators, besides vendors and animals. The filth is to be seen to be believed. At times, I wondered when India will ever become ‘Swatch’, if ever at all, because people seem to be completely unaffected by the mess and garbage. Further delay happened because of a truck and local bus brushed against each other in Malda Town and interlocutors were drafted in to sort out the dispute as to who would pay how much! 

The most notorious stretch in the entire drive is Dalkhola. This junction is a nightmare, when you have to go from south to east and vice versa. The harvesting season compounds the matter; tractors have the right of way and traffic is held up for hours. The other detention point is short of the Dalkhola railway level crossing. Why on earth an overbridge has not been built in all these years is a matter of grave concern. Not a single policeman or traffic warden is seen at any of these places local people, out of their own will, try to reduce tensions. But these points are insufferable. Deep Banerjee had explained in great detail how to avoid the sure to arise crisis if one passes through Dalkhola. He had made me revise a bypass route via Raiganj that would get to Dantola, near Islampur, thereby avoiding Dalkhola and Kishenganj. However, when I reached the turn off to the bypass the road was blocked by ‘civil volunteers’ who said that traffic would not be permitted on that road and that I would have to take the route to Islampur via Dalkhola. I pleaded with the volunteers, but to no avail. I was forced to take the dreaded Dalkhola route and what happened over the next four hours was sheer murder; I did just 80 km. Between 2.30 and 4.30 pm I covered a princely 2 km! One has to maintain a cool that tests the reservoirs of patience and equanimity. Trucks were lined up for kilometers; I followed some adventurous passenger cars to do better than the trucks. Accidents and breakdowns further exacerbated the condition. But, such manmade disasters that are unchanging day after day, all through the year, do not seem to have caught the attention of the state administration. Neither is there any effort to regulate traffic nor is there any indication of action being taken to ease the congestion, by way of augmenting infrastructure. I made use of the idle time to observe behaviours and admire the countryside. Despite the impossible traffic jams and energy sapping weather I did not see a single incident of frayed temper. The ordinary Bengali, I presume, takes everything in his/her stride. The countryside is so beautiful, perhaps because 'development' has yet not spoilt the land.

Anticipating the holdups en route that could throw a spanner into my schedule for the day I had arranged for Railway Officers’ Rest House (ORH) accommodation in New Jalpaiguri. It was 5 pm by the time I got out of the Dalkhola rut. I was in two minds as to the destination for the night – New Jalpaiguri or Alipurduar; it was 130 km to the former and double the distance to the latter. Somewhere close to Siliguri I decided to take the bypass and set course for Alipurduar. In hindsight that turned out to be the right decision; even though it meant driving late into the night, which I normally avoid. I escaped a few deep excavations on the left side of the road, caused by ongoing road widening works. NHAI must take better care in ensuring safety at the work spot.

I finally reached the Alipurduar ORH well past 10 pm and was shown into a comfortable room. Since it was late the cook had already left for the night and I could not have a hot meal. Over completing the documentation for the day I had a cup of coffee before crashing on the comfortable bed. 717 kms had been done in nearly 18 hours from Kolkata to Alipurduar.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Day 2 - Visakhapatnam to Kolkata - 28 May 2017

This day it was a drive from the City of Destiny (Visakhapatnam) to the City of Joy (Kolkata). Another early morning start saw me covering nearly 900 kms in just over 11 hours, thus averaging 80 kmph in the day; truly creditable, I thought, for the condition of the road. While planning the segment between Visakhapatnam and Siliguri I had sought the advice of Deep Banerjee of Indian Roadies. He had assisted me with directions during the Trans-Siberian expedition, which I had benefitted from. This time too he had suggested the route via Durgapur, instead of Kolkata, which meant that I would take a detour just before Kharagpur. That would have required me to drive over 950 km this day to reach a place where decent and safe accommodation would be available. I was not certain that I would be able to do that distance before nightfall. Hence, after given the suggested route a lot of thought, and justifiably long consideration, I plumbed for an overnight halt in Kolkata. The off-side, as Deep explained with great patience and in detail, would be the roads I would have to take the next day via Berhampore and Malda. I decided to brave that for, I thought to myself, an early morning start would help me navigate most of the congested roads before ‘the beehives’ were stirred awake.

The advantage of Thulasiram’s apartment is that it is just a short distance away from the highway. Overnight the car had been washed and spruced up by Thulasiram’s handyman. Even though I prefer early morning starts I have one grave apprehension of that time too. Unnecessary and unwarned steel barriers are placed across highway roads by traffic police. Most of them do not even have fluorescent paint or stickers on them. As is to be expected many of them are knocked down by trucks and buses and remain strewn on various parts of the road. It is absolutely unsafe for the traffic police to indulge in such life threatening activity. Unless the barriers are pre-warned, they should not be put there. In any case they must be placed only during the daytime, when it may be of use. Such ‘miscreant’ activity by law enforcing agencies must be put down with a heavy hand. Similarly, NHAI puts up road diversions without intimating traffic in the opposite direction that they are likely to encounter traffic on the same side of the road. Such negligence must be countered and I am surprised that no NGO has taken up these issues nor have any PILs been filed to protect lives of innocent citizens.

The early morning drive was a breeze and I was able to reach the Ichchapuram check post at the border of Odisha in slightly over three hours. The check post is one of the messiest in the country and it has remained thus over the years; expect the introduction of GST to ring in changes. The only difference was that the condition of roads had improved in Odisha quite dramatically. When I did the All-India expedition in 2010-11 the roads from the border to the other end bordering West Bengal was in appalling condition. The transformation is most welcome and pleasant. The other change has been the transit through Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, which used to be a nightmare in the past; this has been sorted out with the commissioning of a large number of flyovers. I had lived and worked in Khurda Road railways division in the mid-80s. I still shudder to think of the terrible road infrastructure between Khurda and Bhubaneswar.

When I passed Kharagpur I spoke to Deep Banerjee to let him know my coordinates; he had promised to pilot me to the place he had arranged for my stay in Kolkata. He was surprised by the progress I had made and then I too realized that I may have been able to make it to Durgapur without a struggle. It was anyway too late to make any changes in the itinerary for the rest of the day. Deep gave me extensive directions and ensured that I didn’t miss him at the appointed place – I am terrible with directions and road instructions, and hence, it would not have been a surprise to me if I had missed him. 

The Vidyasagar Setu announced Kolkata. Deep Banerjee spared so much of his time to guide me to the NPG Hotel in Rajarhat New Town. The drive through that part of the city was a revelation; the New Town is indeed a very modern part of the City of Joy. Deep had bargained and settled for a decent tariff for the hotel. After checking in and making sure that I am comfortable he ordered sandwiches and coffee, for he was most concerned that I had not had any solid food throughout the drive that day. When I told him that that is always my routine it fell on deaf ears. He still wanted me to have the snack he had ordered. Comfortably settled in the room we had a long chat about events, situations and many anecdotes. He was just them involved in assisting a gentleman who was on a drive around the globe in a battery operated car. After listening to the incidents involving the person I desist from describing him as a gentleman any further! Deep had so chosen the hotel that the highway access to the route to Malda was less than 500 metres from it. I cannot but marvel at the extensive research Deep had done to assist me in this leg of the expedition. Thanks Deep and Indian Roadies.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Day 1 - Chennai to Visakhapatnam - 27 May 2017

Even when the bags are packed and ready well in time I have to rearrange and repack every 24 hours. And packing is a fetish with me. I guess I got it from my mother. Even inside the car the bags were rearranged many times before I let it be last night. The Champion was looking superb in her new garb. Rahul Jawahar, a Facebook friend from Koyambedu, turned up in Pinewood, House of Hiranandani, to see me off; there was no formal flag off for this expedition. When Rahul announced that it was 4.30 am I set off from the portico of the building, the second expedition to be starting from there; the earlier one was the Trans-Siberian almost a year before. The early morning getaways almost always lead to good average speeds for the day; so it was this day. It took me less than an hour to get to NH5, despite losing my way for a while. The highway was in extremely good condition; when I did the Golden Quadrilateral Expedition in 2013 it was indisputably the best among the quadrilaterals.

The most difficult stretch on the route is the passage through Vijayawada. I was prepared for a 45 minute delay in the transit through the busy city. I thought it was wise on the part of the CM of Andhra Pradesh to have chosen a different city to found the new capital. Vijayawada is crowded and the infrastructure is straining at its seams. The toll gates were another delay point and they were so numerous. After I had started off from Chennai I realized that I did not have a valid pollution certificate. Shortly after passing Vijayawada I noticed a Maruti Omni parked beside the highway announcing it as government approved mobile pollution checking centre. I decided to seek their services. Two youngsters with a laptop and attendant equipment did the job in a trice and gave me a printed certificate and a sticker for Rs. 100.

I was scheduled to stay with Thulasiram Nair, a very old friend in his apartment in KSR Green Valley, near the NSTL establishment. Thulasiram waited at a prearranged location to pilot me to his apartment complex. I had reached the night halt destination by 4.50 pm; distance of 895 kms had been covered in just over 12 hours – without the delays through Vijayawada and tolls, I may have done the distance in 10 hours. Another Facebook friend requested a meeting in Visakhapatnam. Shaiju PV works on a high profile contract in the city and we spent some time in Thulasiram’s house exchanging information. I wanted to fold in a bit early as the next day’s drive would be longer than the one this day. Hence, we decided on early dinner. Nandini, the lovely wife of Thulasiram, was away nursing her mother through an illness. And, their son, Vishnu, is in Delhi preparing for the Civil Services examination.

I suggested either a dosa or biriyani dinner. Thulasiram suggested that we try out the ‘Uluvacharu’ biriyani, which is popular in Krishna District of AP. On the way to the De Cabanas restaurant Thulasiram suggested that we stop over at the Railway stadium to meet the Sr Divisional Personnel Officer, Sakkeer Hussain IRPS, who was also the Sports Officer. I was amazed to find excellent facilities in the indoor stadium for badminton, boxing and table tennis. Railways have also drafted in the services of competent coaches to coach and train. Sakkeer told me that he had been on deputation with the Indian Embassy in Moscow during my drive through that city in 2014 on the way to London. After a hearty meal at the De Cabanas we went to the apartment complex where Srijit Viswanath, my colleague from the DPW days in Cochin, lived. I had fortunately remembered at the nick of time that he had relocated to that city from Mumbai. It was wonderful catching up with an old friend and his family. That rounded up the day’s activities.

Back in Thulasiram’s apartment it was social media time. There is so much work to be done when one travels solo. All done, it was time for the customary short sleep, which would be the feature of the expedition. I normally do not sleep for more than 4 hours in the night during an expedition.