Last evening Manvesh volunteered to pilot us out of the city in the morning. He arrived at a quarter to 7 am when I was loading luggage. The number of items in the car seemed to be growing; miraculously they all fitted in somehow. Purvesh, another HVK friend, had been in touch since early last evening. He was very keen to share his driving experience in Tibet and so was I to hear all of it. He was among the first to drive to Tibet from India in 2012, as part of a religious tourism group that did the Mansarovar and Mt Kailas trip. He told me how there was last minute change in the visa issuing centre – it was shifted from Kathmandu to Delhi after a member of the group had reached Kathmandu with the car! I became anxious lest we face the same issue in the next few days. However, I was certain that the matter would be settled before we left Gorakhpur.
Though Baiju was on the road to recovery Lal’s condition went the other way. I advised him not to bathe. He and Baiju took rest in the car on the leg from Nagpur to Jhansi. Lal expected the homeopathy medicines to act by the time we reached Jhansi. It did not happen. The cough grew rougher and louder and his eyes looked extremely unhealthy. By the time we reached Jhansi Lal was not in a position to stand steadily; part of the reason may have been my driving and the road condition in Maharashtra! Baiju recovered almost fully, although the antibiotics were acting up on his stomach. Lal was taken to a doctor in Jhansi who prescribed antibiotics and cough syrup. He had very little to eat through the day. Part of the weakness was also on account of drastically reduced intake.
Purvesh and Parag saw us off in Nagpur after the LBR log sheet was attested and the packed breakfast was put in the car. Manvesh piloted us to a reliable fuel station and thereafter to the highway. As warned by the HVK friends the road condition in Maharashtra through the Pench forest was a bone shaker ride. It lasted for nearly 90 minutes; till the border with Madhya Pradesh. I had driven this stretch during the Kanyakumari-Leh-Kanyakumari solo expedition in July 2012 It had been one of the worst stretches in the entire expedition and, therefore, I did not have much hope today of improved condition beyond the border either. In fact, I experienced the worst road conditions in Madhya Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal during my 5 solo expeditions between 2010 and 2013. I was happy to be proved wrong; the MP side of the Pench and thereafter to Jhansi was in much better condition than I could imagine. We stopped at the border to partake of the idlis and vada, the packed breakfast. A small tea shop served us excellent tea. A truck driver, who was sipping a glass of hot tea, assured us that the road from there on would be better and he was right.
The route from Nagpur to Jhansi passed through Seoni, Sagar, Nargingpur and Lalitpur. I had stayed overnight with Sudhanshu Srivatsava and his family while driving from Kanyakumari to Leh in 2012. I thought it would be unfair on my part if I did not at least speak to them before bypassing Sagar. I got in touch with Sudhanshu and pat came the invitation to lunch. I reluctantly begged off. Karan, his son, was floored when he heard of the current expedition to London. He insisted on meeting up with the team at the bypass and we arranged it accordingly. In the meanwhile another drama unfolded. A person called Anoop got in touch with me and expressed his desire to meet us in Sagar. He and two of his friends, Vikas and Akshat, drove 200 kilometers from Bhopal to meet us just for a few minutes. They followed the journey as members of the HVK Forum. Lal, Baiju and I chatted with the four youngsters over lunch at a dhaba on the Sagar bypass. It is interaction like this that motivates the team.
Anup had arranged with Sanjay Kaushik in Jhansi to ‘look after’ us. And he did it in style. When we drove into the ORH premises there were Press personnel waiting for us. It was a surprise. We had not anticipated it. Over snacks and tea Baiju and I explained the mission and posed for snaps and provided sound bytes. It was a good opportunity for me to brush up my vernacular language skills. Later in the evening the event was aired on the local channel.
From day 2 onwards a yellow lamp was lighting up intermittently on the panel suggesting some engine malfunction. The car had, however, performed quite well all through to Jhansi. Baiju and I thought it fit to get the matter examined in a Ford service station in either Jhansi or Gorakhpur. Rakesh of Kairali Ford, Cochin informed us that Gorakhpur was the only choice since there was no Ford dealership in Jhansi. This information warranted another change in the itinerary. Instead of spending an additional day in Jhansi we decided to travel through to Gorakhpur the next day; which also meant another tweak of the programme. I requested Arvind Kumar, Chief Commercial Manager, North Eastern Railway for 2 rooms for 2 days. Meticulously he took down the requirements of accommodation and food of each of the team members and promised to do the needful.