Thursday, June 26, 2014

DAY 10 - 25 June 2014; Pokhara to Kathmandu

Friends,
The absence of data connectivity had plagued blog updation since departure from Cochin till I met Sandeep in the GoFord service centre in Kathmandu on 23 June. Since then I have been able to find free WiFi locations to get my stuff done on the net. The availability of free WiFi at Hotel Snowland helped me update information, catch up on mails, respond to friends on Facebook and send pictures to UPMA for continued branding. Since we had decided to leave after an early breakfast I got up earlier to complete left over work. I also decided to check out a few things that would be used during the Tibet/China part of the journey such as the electric water heater, the Green Tea bags the jacket, etc. I had not opened the box of publicity material sent by the Kerala Tourism department. Pokhara being the prime tourist destination in Nepal I thought it appropriate to leave some publicity material in the hotel. The box contained brochures about Kerala, tourism and Ayurveda besides CDs of the same. I had been told by Mirus that I would not be permitted to take unscreened CD/DVDs into China. I will have to try and convince people at the border that the material is not meant for distribution in China.

The waiter in the hotel told us that only bread and eggs would be available in time. We settled for toasts and omlette. Even the request for an additional toast was dismissed saying that it would take time, and that we did not have in plenty. I completed the check out formalities and handed over the tourism material at the reception for display in the hotel lobby. Since the day had dawned bright, though not clear, we decided to visit the Phewa Lake once again and also make a brief stopover at Sarangkhot. The lakeside was full of tourists who had come there early for boating and visit to the temple on the island in the lake. We jostled with them for a few photographs; even a film shooting unit was setting up its equipment to take advantage of the morning sunshine. The most fascinating part of the lake view is supposedly the reflection of the snowcapped mountain ranges in the waters; that was not to be since the clouds jealously enveloped most of the peaks.

Then we took the winding road to Sarangkhot. We had been advised the previous night at the hotel that we should leave at a quarter past 4 am to view the sunrise from atop the 2300 meter high view point. Since the weather had played truant we decide against a sunrise view but it being better today we wanted to see how the Lake looked from up there. Fortunately, as we made the drive to Sarangkhot there were not many vehicles plying the road. Therefore, I made it rather easily through the narrow, winding road. At one point we chanced upon the Aastha café that afforded good views. We asked permission of the lady manning the café and were told that we have to order tea to use the view point, which was the terrace of their house cum café. The view was not clear due to the misty overhang. Certainly, on a clear day, it is a vantage point. The lady, who turned out to be the English teacher in the village school, showed us the potted Aloe Vera plants which she explained is the best anti-dote for wrinkles, diabetes and cancer. As we were having tea I saw a few black stones, some broken in the middle lying within the shop. On closer examination I understood them to be fossils and the lady confirmed them as such. She explained why they are as expensive as INR 700 plus per stone; they were brought from some of the mountains of the Himalayan range after 21 days of trekking. The stones contained fossils of snails and other shelled beings. She held a lit torch on the fossil, which gave off a light golden glow, to establish that the fossils are authentic! By this time the husband, who was till then busy with making tea, rather abruptly commanded the lady to retreat into the house. We wondered if this was the ultimate act of a jealous husband or a businessman who saw no value in the selling process?

It is a steep climb from the place where the car had to be parked to reach the viewpoint. By the time we reached the top clouds had completely held in its clasp the mountains and their peaks. We had a sneak at a couple of the snowcapped ones while driving up, but when we got there the clouds just would not let go. However, the view point gave us a good 360 degree view of the valley and the verdant hills. By the time we started descending from Sarangkhot the higher reaches of the mountain were full of paragliding enthusiasts and gawking visitors from India. Tourist buses from UP and Bihar could be seen everywhere.

I read a piece in the morning paper announcing shortage of fuel supply leading to long queues at fuel stations in Kathmandu. I drove into one in Pokhara to tank up before leaving for Kathmandu. With about 140 kms to go to Kathmandu we stopped at a small wayside eatery, where we had boiled eggs and coffee. We had observed in Nepal the tendency of men to roll up t-shirts and vests above their waist. I observed a person in the eatery why it was so. He explained that it was to beat the heat!

We got to Kathmandu just after 3 pm. The agency that was helping us with the Chinese visas informed that the visas would be ready only by tomorrow. Hence, we had a free afternoon. It was decided to explore the ancient city of Bhaktapur. The narrow road lined on either side by brick constructions was an interesting drive. The drive went on and on till we reached Manohara Restaurant, where we decided to have lunch. It was 4 pm! The reason for choosing the restaurant was free WiFi. We had a leisurely meal of NV Russian Salad, Chicken Momo, Chicken Khaja set meal, fried rice and chilly chicken. The Khaja set meal consisted of flattened rice flakes, mixture, chicken curry, pickle, greens and a vegetable dry dish (like thoran). From the restaurant we learnt that we had overshot the old city. Many enquiries later we reached the ancient capital city of the Ranas, which remained so till the 15th century. The temples, the Durbar, baths and squares are all extremely well preserved. They are mostly in red brick with metallic and wooden embellishments that have stood the test of time. Even the pavements are laid out in red bricks.


The return to the flat was marred by an ugly incident in a crowded placed called Dwarko Chowk. The entire city is bathed in dust thanks to the road widening and construction. The stretch from Kalanki to Koteswar is treacherous because of deep excavation. The sides of the existing road has precipitous drop of up to 4 feet. Add to that snaky driving and we have immense opportunities for accidents. One such, albeit a minor scrape, happened just ahead of the above mentioned chowk which is one of the most congested for it has lanes leading to heavily populated residential locations. A car tried to cut in from the left and mildly scrapped the side bumper. We were willing to drive off due to the humongous traffic behind us. But, the driver of the car would not do so; he possibly smelt blood. He stopped the car right there and demanded to get his car painted. Then we too got aggressive and even argued with one of the traffic constables. Another came by and gathered from the position of the scrapes that the mistake was that of the car driver. The latter was also fast losing local support, particularly after Lal dramatically declared that we are guests passing through the peaceful land with a mission of driving a long distance to London! Fortunately, Mohan also called as I was in animated discussion with the cops and the car driver. They then understood that we have local clout too. The matter resolved after nearly a half hour of loud and aggressive discussion. Thereafter it was back home to the coziness of the bed – we had had a long day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

DAY 9 - 24 June 2014; Kathmandu to Pokhara

Friends,
The road map for entry into Tibet/China became crystal clear with the visit to Ram’s office to fill up the Chinese visa form. Entry would be on the 27th. Thus, we had three more days on hand. It was decided to visit Pokhara on 24th and return the next day, in time to collect the stamped passports from Ram’s office. The afternoon of the 25th would be reserved for miscellaneous activity, including a visit to the Indian Embassy if we had the time. Local sightseeing will be the focus on 26th after the mountain flight, which depended hugely on good weather conditions. The plans for the next few days were laid out thus. Accordingly, after Leela was done with the next load of washing we set out for Pohkara. The city of Kathmandu is astonishingly dusty due to road and other construction works. River sand mining and stone crushing units add to the dust and chaos on the road. On the outskirts of the city we stopped for breakfast. The small thatched hut turned restaurant served us chana and omlette. The former was a bit spicy while the latter had loads of salt in it. Nevertheless, both were tasty enough for additional helpings.

Heavy traffic slowed progress till Naubise. There are numerous stay wire bridges across the Trishuli River. We stopped near one of them to experience a short walk across it. The Trishuli River is named after Shiva and the legend is that he drove his trident (Trishul) deep into the ground high in the Himalayas to create three springs, which is the source of the river. The river originates in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China (TAR) and forms one of the main tributaries that feed the Narayani River basin in Central Nepal.

From Kathmandu it is 110 kms to Mugling, which we had also traversed on our way to Kathmandu on 22 June. Pokhara lies 90 kms further west and diverts from the road to Bhairawaha at Mugling. The journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara was barely 200 kms, but was not a smooth ride. Pokhara is reportedly the second biggest city in Nepal. However, indisputably, she is the darling of tourists. Pokhara is the base for trekkers doing the Annapurna circuit. Three of the ten biggest mountains are in close proximity to Pokhara and there lies the appeal of the city. There are hotels and backpackers inns all over. Many shops sell equipment meant exclusively for trekkers. Handicraft shops, souvenir vendors, coffee bars, tourism facilitators, et al make for a typical touristy town.

Hotel accommodation in Pokhara was arranged for us by Mohan in Hotel Snowland. He told us that the hotel offers good views of the lake and we looked forward to it. But when we checked in at 1.30 pm we were disappointed, to be polite. The rooms did not even overlook anything decent to write about! Since it was hot and humid as we came into the city we decided to have lunch at the hotel rather than move about and get fried. We sat for quite some time in the restaurant area before the security guard (who seemed to be the only person in the hotel who could summon service) sent us a young waiter, who mercifully took down the order. It took close to three quarters of an hour for the food to arrive. And when it came the waiter placed the rotis and chicken curry before us and left. He was summoned again and I asked him for plates; he almost had a cardiac arrest. He brought two of them after he had recovered from the shock of the ‘insane’ request. The request for a third plate most certainly placed him in mental ICU! I could not, after this trauma, ask the waiter for water. Baiju got a bottle of it from the car. Through all this it was the availability of free WiFi that kept us in good humour. Data connectivity is extremely costly on pre-paid SIMs in Nepal. Lal and Baiju have already spent a fortune staying connected; therefore, its free availability was a boon. We were able to get most of our work done; including updating the blog posts.

The food was extremely good; was it the hunger or the chef’s expertise? Hard to tell. Since it was still hot we decided to rest awhile and then go for a walk to the lake. By about 4 pm the skies opened up and cooled the city. It continued to pour for almost an hour and was still drizzling when we ventured out to explore the streets. The first stop was at a cafe for a hot mug of café latte. The rain and flowing rain water continued to dodge our efforts to walk. We decided to drive to the lake. The Phewa lake (variously called Phewa Tal and Fewa lake) is a large freshwater lake that is famous for its reflection of the Machchapucchre (fish faced) and other mountains of the Annapurna and Daulagiri Range. We could not experience these as the rain hid the mountain views. Boating on the lake was also stopped due to the rain. What I liked most was the availability of baskets and bins at intermittent locations for collection and segregation of waste. When I wondered aloud why this was not being done in Kerala pat came the response of my companions: the baskets will be pilfered in a trice for whatever it is worth!


We walked around the lake for more than an hour braving the drizzle and got a good view of the Taal Barahi Temple, located on an island in the lake, and the World Peace Pagoda. Pokhara is an expensive city, by all means. This was brought home to us rather rudely when we picked up a half bottle of vodka, and bottles of soda and Sprite; it cost us nearly INR 900! It was a chastening experience. Dinner was at the hotel. Since the weather was not conducive for viewing sunrise from Sarangkot we decided to tuck in for slightly longer.

DAY 8 - 23 June 2013; In Kathmandu

Friends,
In seven days I had accumulated soiled clothes that had to be washed. Mohan said that the maid who cleaned the flat would do the needful since laundries would not be able to give the clothes back in time. As Leela came in for work in the morning I only gave her one chore to complete besides sweeping and swabbing the flat – wash clothes. She did that quite expertly and hung them out in the balcony to dry. Since we had not had the food she had cooked for us the previous evening I told her to take that home for her family. She took permission to borrow a few utensils to take the food home.

After a few cups of black tea and a bath in cold water we decided to complete the formalities for the Chinese visa. Mirus had arranged with another agency in Kathmandu to take care of that. I had arranged to meet Ram of Nepal Tours in his office in Jayatha Thamel by 10 am. Accordingly we scheduled our departure from the flat and the navigation software guided us expertly to Thamel through gut wrenchingly narrow lanes. How Baiju managed to avoid the walls and vehicles was a study in expert handling of the steering. Fortunately Lal located an underground parking close to the address that we had to go to. The forms were filled up in quick time in Ram’s office. We handed over photographs and passports to him. He promised to get the visas done by 25th afternoon. We had invitation to stay in China for 30 days and hence, sought entry on 27 June and exit on 17 July. Ram told us that the Chinese guide would meet us at the border on 27th and take care of all the border crossing formalities, in much the same way as Ravi did for us at the Nepal border.

By the time we finished in Ram’s office we were close to starvation for we had skipped dinner last night. Ram suggested breakfast at the Chikusa Café, which he said was nothing fancy. It turned out to be a cozy little place that offered a sumptuous English breakfast of sausages, baked beans, toasts, eggs and organic coffee. The coffee seemed quite popular with visitors and locals. It has a special flavour and aroma and was advertised as being made from specially picked Nepalese coffee beans. While waiting for the order to be served I tried a couple of cyber cafes to upload the blog posts. Either power cuts or network problems plagued my effort. Once the rather elaborate morning meal was gone through – I had further helpings from the portions served for Lal and Baiju.

As we moved out of Chikusa Café we noticed a rather popular handicraft shop where large quantity of Rudraksh beads was on display. The proprietor of the store, Sanat Chhetri, immediately recognized us as South Indian, he said because of our expressions! He had worked in the Gulf too and was familiar with Malayalam movies. He had watched ‘Classmates’ and was overjoyed to meet its Director, Lal Jose. Sanat showed us the Ek Mukh and the oval shaped Rudraksh; the former was priced at 4,000,000 NPR and the latter at 6,000,000 NPR! Therefore, if any friend gifts you one of these you could mostly be sure that it is a fake, for the price of the genuine one is prohibitive. We picked up wrist bands made of plum seeds. Sanat said that prayers chanted with it would bring wealth and prosperity. The store was filled with masks and stringed musical instruments. Sanat expertly displayed his prowess on one, which produced sounds similar to the thumri.

On the way to Thamel Baiju had spotted the Go Ford service station. We headed for that next. As we drove into the service station we saw Sandeep Chhetri, the Service Manager; the happy face and welcome demeanour immediately endeared him to us. We explained what we wanted done with the car that had to last till London to the Jammu resident. He got on to the task almost immediately. A technician was summoned and the service staff docked the car. We were asked to wait in the customer lounge while the car being attended to – may take a couple of hours, we were told. We decided to do residual jobs like downloading the GoPro videos, catching up with mails, etc. I wanted to upload the blog posts. I asked Sandeep for direction to a cyber café. He offered his laptop without hesitation. The service centre had WiFi. He arranged for the IT guy to set up the service on our hand phones and laptops. Coffee was brought in as ordered, one black, one without sugar and the other normal! Time went by so fast and we got most of our residual works done by the time the vehicle was ready to move out of the service station. The car had aroused a lot of curiosity and we did a lot of talking to interested audience. The complaints we had noted were minor. After the external wash she looked a beauty. Sandeep also gave us a 10% discount on the bill; but requested Lal for a role in his next film! The attitude and customer enablement is a lesson for their Indian counterparts. We felt thankful to Arvind for having helped us find the right solution with his suggestion in Gorakhpur.

Having got a major concern out of the way we embarked on completing the next task – that of taking delivery of the parcel of ICICI travel card, a CD and a battery charger that had been dispatched from Cochin via Chennai and Kolkata. While the Travel Card had been misplaced in Lal’s house the rest were accessories for the GoPro. Abraham Pius and Commander JM Joseph (of course, his ever efficient and ready to help wife, Elsie) were responsible for the super service. Had this not happened we would have struggled to make ends meet during the Schengen part of our journey. The Station Manager of Air India, Rajashekaran, had to be met at the Kathmandu International Airport at 4 pm. We had time to kill. We drove into a fuel station to tank up. The fuel stations in Kathmandu are always overflowing. Petrol costs 135 NPR (INR 84) and diesel 105.5 NPR (INR 66) in Kathmandu. It was decided to spend the rest of the time over lunch at the China Valley restaurant, not very far from the airport. Lunch consisted of steamed momos, fried rice and chilly fish. While we were feasting on the food the staff was busy car gazing. Wherever we went she was the star.

We parked at the departure of the International airport and called up Rajasekharan. He came to the Police Help Desk with his technical colleague, Manivannan, who hailed from Chennai. We spent quite some time with them, again taking about the adventure. Thereafter, we went to the Domestic airport to book for the mountain flight. The airport manager took me to the Buddha Air booking counter, where I booked two seats on the 6.30 am flight on the 26th; Baiju had already been up once and his fear of flying kept him away from another sortie. Manivannan arrived where we were booking the flight with Savio, who worked for Air Arabia and hailed from Chalakudy. Savio was a huge Lal Jose fan and we found it difficult to take leave of him.

The plan for the evening was to roam the streets of Thamel. We decided to come back to the flat, freshen up and go to Thamel. On the way back to the flat a taxi rear ended the car. Fortunately, no damage was done even though the jolt suggested otherwise. A few expletives and shouts later we were on our way to the flat. We decided to take a taxi to Thamel instead of navigating narrow lanes and finding non-existent parking. We located Chatur Gurung and his taxi after a hard bargain. He took us to Thamel through narrower streets and non-existent roads. He bemoaned the rapidly rising living costs and fuel expenses. However, intrinsically he remained happy. He even promised to pick us up from Thamel after we were done there.

We started walking around. Every street looked the same. Similar vendors, advertisements, massage parlors and eating joints made it seem so. Then I heard Mohan (from Raxaul), a fruit vendor, humming a popular Hindi song. There were many such vendors but none looked in such high spirits as Mohan did. He gave me a special 20 per cent discount on a kg of fresh litchis. The fruit was delicious. We roamed some more and then located a traditional massage parlor. The Manager induced us to opt for Aroma Therapy and we did for the bulk discount he offered. We emerged fully rejuvenated after an hour of intense massage from head to toe. The joints and muscles started aching pleasantly. The masseurs helped themselves to liberal helpings of the litchis! Only their constant chatter across privacy curtains was irksome.

The vigorous massage left us voraciously hungry. We located a small restaurant that served traditional Thakali fare. We settled down with a few bottles of the locally popular beer – Gorkha. It is a mild and watery brew. The fried chicken we had with it was well cooked. We tried out the Thakali set meal. The preparations were different, of saag, potato and even pickles. I polished off the set meal with a chicken preparation. Spicing up the meal was the football match between Holland and Chile. Then we took a taxi back to the flat. The night charge is 50% more than the day fare. Chatur told me that no one operated taxis by the fare meter because fares were not revised despite many revisions of the fuel price. He also warned me that if anyone agreed to operate the fare meter it would be because the same would have been tampered. The taxi we hailed at Thamel wanted to be paid by the meter. But I stuck to 450 NPR as all in charge and the driver agreed.


Apart from hunger the massage had also made us extremely sleepy. We barely managed to get back to the flat and onto the bed.

DAY 7 - 22 June 2014; Gorakhpur to Kathmandu

Friends,
We had completed the stay in the last Indian city; it was time to move to foreign lands. The excitement of visiting places I had not been to before and the fact that I would be back in the homeland only after another 10 weeks created a mosaic of feelings. Arun Yadav, the Catering Inspector, came with the voucher for the food. After settling the ORH charges and the food bill we checked out. Arun Yadav attested the LBR log sheet and he piloted us to the highway and waved us on.

The road to Sunauli was more or less okay. However, as we approached the Indian border congestion caused by haphazard parking of trucks and accidents clogged the road, which was not narrow, but was made almost impassable due to indiscipline. The last 7 kilometers to the border took us more than a half hour. Mohan had arranged with Ravi to facilitate our passage through the Indian and Nepalese borders. Ravi worked for the Company that was operating an Inland Container Depot (ICD) on the Nepal border, Bhairawaha. As we reached the Indian departure gate he flagged us down and took the Carnet for completing formalities with Indian Customs. While he was at it we used the time to take photos. The Indian mobile SIM stopped working well short of the border. Indian Customs officials told me that they were dealing with such a case for the first time. Indian vehicles are taken to Nepal and China, but they always return to India. Here was a case where the car was being exported for close to three months. Therefore, they took time to decide how to deal with the Carnet. Finally they stamped the Carnet and gave us the green signal to go through to Nepal. I was much relieved.

The sweltering heat was sapping our energy. Lal made a turban of his short towel. The Indo-Nepal border is a dust bowl, dirty and grimy. We moved the car into the ICD and went with documents to the Customs officials in Nepal. Ravi, who has excellent relations with all the officials on both sides, was patient and cooperative. The Nepal Customs Commissioner pointed out that the paperwork done by India Customs was not in order. Therefore, we had to go back to the Indian border to correct the paperwork. It took up a lot of time in hot and humid conditions. Ravi made us comfortable in his room with tea and snacks. He also helped us procure local pre-paid SIM cards; we were charged even for resizing the SIM to fit the micro sockets! But, the entire process was handled expertly and efficiently once the passports and photographs were produced. We were ready to move to Kathmandu after almost three hours at the border.

Ravi instructed his driver to lead us on to the road that bypassed Bhairawaha whereby we saved time and gained distance. A short distance after the bypass, on the main road to Bhumayi, we came across a place called “London Bridge”. Had we arrived at our destination? By 2 pm we spotted a neat restaurant cum lodge and dropped in to have lunch. The thali meal was superb. The owner of the place, Dharm as the youngster introduced himself, was keen to know a great deal about the journey. He was fascinated to know that we would be taking the car through to the UK. He had worked in the Gulf for a while and had Indian friends. He was a fan of Indian movies through that association.

A feature of the drive through Bhumayi, Narayanghat and Mungling was the verdant and lush green landscape. The villages and small towns that we passed by were neat and clean too. We did not see any garbage and filth strewn around or accumulated. Except for the approach road to Kathmandu which was grooved and tricky and the winding ghat road en route to Bhumayi it was a smooth ride all the way to Kathmandu. It was 7 pm by the time we entered the city. I was struck by the large number of taxis parked all over. The taxis were all white, mostly Maruti 800s, and had black number plates with white lettering, while the general vehicles had red number plates.

Mohan had arranged with Prashant to meet us at Kalanki, a junction in Kathmandu, to be piloted to the flat where our stay arrangements were had been made. Since we got to Kalanki earlier than Prashant did he asked us to drive to another meeting point from where we took the steep climb to the TCH Tower IV where Mohan had his flat. The comfortable two bedroom flat was furnished and ready for us. It turned out that Prashant belonged to the family that co-operated the ICD in Birganj. He gave me a fair understanding of the places to visit in Kathmandu. The Swayambunath temple, familiar with Keralites for its depiction in the popular film ‘Yodha’, was clearly visible from the balcony of the flat.


Indian currency is very widely accepted. Research on Nepal had led me to understand that it was illegal to exchange denominations of 500 and 1000. Therefore, I carried bundles of 100s to take care of the expenditure in Nepal. However, the change will be given only in Nepali rupee (NPR). After we had settled the luggage and taken leave of Prashant we walked a short distance from the residential complex and bought Tuborg beer from a store. Each bottle cost 220 NPR. The chilled beer provided welcome relief from the humid air. Even though Mohan had got dinner prepared for us we did not get through it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

DAY 6 - 21 June 2014; In Gorakhpur



Friends,
The inext team arrived as scheduled at 8.30 am. Over a cup of tea and an outdoor session the shoot was completed. These sessions helped me brush up Hindi. The next task was to collect the stamped passport that was in transit. The train carrying the special messenger, Dalip Jain, arrived half hour late. It was a great relief seeing the stamped visas in the passports. The validity of the visas was also favourable; a few days’ delay here and there would not be show stoppers.

We were ready for the most important task of the day. The car had to be checked up to clear our apprehension of the burning yellow lamp in the panel. Baiju spoke to the contact whose number was given by Kairali Ford, Cochin. A young girl at the other end politely told us to come by on Sunday, for the service station was closed on Saturdays! Thunder and lightening had struck at the same time. We were absolutely flabbergasted. However, the girl asked us to call the Service Manager and the CEO in case we wanted a different response. The Service Manager, Ajay Chaurasia, said that he was unable to help and that he could do so only the next morning. After a lot of pleas he accepted to get the car attended to earlier than the scheduled opening time of 9.30 am. He, however, said that he would call up by 8 pm to confirm the time. I then called up the CEO, Anand Aggarwal. I explained that we have a border crossing arranged into Nepal at 9.30 am the next morning and that I wanted to get the car attended this day. His response made me feel that he would sort out the issue. Anand told me that he would get back in 5 minutes. That 5 minutes never arrived. I waited for an hour and rang up repeatedly. He would not pick up the phone. Not responding to phone calls, messages and mails is a trait that runs deep through the Ford management in India, as we experienced in interactions with the Company. It is indeed sad that an expedition that could have given them so much mileage was being neglected. The poor response and totally irresponsible behaviour towards a customer is shocking. The 8 pm deadline mentioned by Chaurasia also went by without any reconfirmation from him. When I called him up he said that he would be able to attend to the car only after 9.30 am since his technician lived very far away! Then I lost my cool. I gave him such a shelling that he said that he would attend to the car by 8.30 am; maybe to buy peace! When Arvind came by later he told me not to depend on the guys in Gorakhpur. He suggested that we get the car checked up in Nepal. Google confirmed the availability of a dealership in Kathmandu. We decided to leave for the border by 7 am. Thus, something that should have a matter of pride for Ford India will leave tomorrow to be attended to by Ford Nepal.

Driving through the city in the morning to complete a few chores gave us an opportunity to watch city life at closer quarters. The dirt and filth all over is shocking. People spit anywhere and everywhere. If you are not careful your person could be the target too. Private passenger carriers and autos are so overloaded that the width of the vehicle gets extended substantially. From in between the tight fit people find ways of putting their heads out to spit! Without an exception people have deformed teeth; even women. The habit of chewing pan and tobacco is almost universal.

We completed formalities of money exchange and getting photocopies of the Chinese invitation in the city. The contract conditions with Mirus were almost near completion with the Chinese permits.  Therefore, accounts had to be settled with them before leaving for Nepal. I arranged with ICICI to transfer the balance amount to Mirus. Their guidance and assistance were of immense help in undertaking this journey. Siddharth Jain, Shrey Bansal and Raji Nair were constantly on the job to get matters sorted out. I taxed them a lot but they were up to it. Three cheers to the Mirus team.

Upon return from the city ‘tour’ we had a heavy lunch and I sought refuge in a nap that was meant to be short but had to be woke up by Baiju for a visit to the Gorakhnath Mandir and the Geeta Press.  We navigated lanes and bylanes that were chocked and were held hostage by wanton road use. For history and significance of the Mandir please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorakhnath_Math.

We were struggling to find our way to the Geeta Press we were waved down by a couple of motorcycle borne priests in mufti. They had read about our presence in the city from the newspapers – we did raise eyebrows and turn heads during our morning city tour; people recognized the car from photographs that had appeared in the newspapers. The priests mentioned that there were many Keralite priests in the Bishop’s house. However, we decided to turn back to the ORH and take some more rest and catch up on left over work.

B Mohan, an erstwhile colleague in Container Corporation of India (CONCOR), was on deputation to the Company operating an Inland Container depot at Birganj, Nepal. I had got in touch with him to find out about the border formalities and recommendation for hotel accommodation in Nepal. He immediately swung into action and made arrangements for border facilitation and hotel bookings in Butwal and Pokhara (they were on the original list of places to visit). In Kathmandu he offered his furnished two bedroom flat for our use. Mirus confirmed that we would, in all probability, get an entry into Tibet on 27th. Therefore, the Chinese visa had to applied for on the 23rd in Kathmandu. This necessitated a further change in the program. Butwal and Pokhara were deleted from the itinerary; we would go through to Kathmandu on 22nd from Gorakhpur. Mohan rearranged everything for us without a murmur. He also got us an appointment to meet the Indian Ambassador on the 27th in Kathmandu. This may have to be rescheduled once the entry to Tibet is confirmed.

DAY 5 - 20 June 2014; Jhansi to Gorakhpur



Friends,
After a cup of tea we took to the road for Gorakhpur; we anticipated a 5 pm arrival at the destination given that we had to travel 600 plus kilometers. Lal was fully on the road to recovery too and Baiju was fit to drive again. We decided to search for a dhaba before leaving the city for breakfast. We could not find any; there were any number of medical shops, though! Many dhabas we stopped at later were not open for business. The growls announcing hunger became embarrassing. On the Kanpur highway we finally discovered Feroze Khan and his dhaba. A typical highway dhaba it was, but the owner not so typical. Feroze Khan had an MBA under his belt and spoke English fluently. I ordered aloo paratha and Baiju wanted rotis and aloo subzi. Lal had had a bun and jam in the car and hence stuck to just a cup of tea. The parathas were, as was to be expected, heavy. I was slowly, but surely, gaining weight on the journey. I was tucking into the heavy dhaba food with gusto.

The road from Jhansi to Kanpur was tricky and dangerous for top speed. Large stretches were deeply grooved by movement of trucks. Poor construction and maintenance of highways call for naming them ‘NS - National Shames’ rather than ‘NH - National Highways’. It is time that the NHAI is proceeded against legally for they flout all safety norms and do not believe in even forewarning road users of temporary diversions. Add to that crass indiscipline where tractors, two wheelers and even buses come at you in the wrong lane the recipe for disasters is complete. The chaos and congestion caused by construction of flyovers further impeded our progress through Kanpur. The road to Lucknow thereafter was slightly better. It was only after Lucknow that we got a decently laid out road. On the way we stopped at a couple of places to buy Langda mangoes and Jamun. Both were mouthwateringly good. Then we made good time to Gorakhpur.

Ankur Singh, a Fb friend, had got in touch with me the previous evening. He had expressed a desire to meet the team in Lucknow. He called again the morning and kept on monitoring our progress. At a point he suggested that we have lunch at ‘Dastarkwan’; one of the best places for authentic Lucknowi food. I was tempted a great deal to accept the invitation but had to refuse on account of the diversion from the highway. However, Ankur was persistent. He roped in his cousin Shailendra Saxena to persuade me to stop over at the Break Point Dhaba on the Faizabad Road. I acceded once I was convinced that the suggested meeting point was en route to Gorakhpur involving no diversion. Ankur and his friends met us on the way and piloted us to the dhaba. They braved heavy traffic to photograph and videograph the drive to the dhaba; it caused much mirth among other road users. We had a relatively relaxed lunch at the Break Point Dhaba where we got more familiar with the four youngsters, Ankur Singh (doing BTech in Civil), Namit Singh (preparing for UPSC exams), Arpit Verma (9th standard) and Shailendra Saxena (working in Justdial.com). Their hospitality, respect and warmth kept us in their company longer than we had intended. Outstanding matka kulfi rounded up the lunch meet after more than an hour.

Accommodation had been arranged in the Old VIP ORH. Arvind, as is his wont, had given me detailed directions to reach the ORH. And, as is my wont, I still managed to chase my own tail for some time before driving into the ORH. We were in for a major surprise; flashbulbs went off in quick succession and videos were taken. There was a large posse of media personnel waiting for us to arrive. The Press Meet had been set up by Arvind too. The interaction went on for quite some time and was lively thanks to Pande of inext newspaper. Just as in Jhansi it was a challenge speaking to the vernacular press. But, mercifully, unlike in Jhansi no one asked us where Kochi is situated!

Over a sumptuous dinner, after Arvind had visited and spent time with us, we detailed plans for the morrow. Topping the list was the visit to the Ford service station to check the intermittent lighting up of the warning light. The next was to collect the passports that had been dispatched by special messenger by Mirus from Delhi. Left over time would be utilised for some local sightseeing, we decided. Late at night the inext team called up to ask if they could come for another shoot for their online portal. I agreed to meet with them at 8.30 am the next day.

DAY 4 - 19 June 2014; Nagpur to Jhansi



Friends,
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.