Thursday, May 28, 2015

Post Trip - 16 May 2015 - Oh, What an Odyssey!

The South East Asian Odyssey was planned in three months and executed over 77 days, covering 21635 kms. The odyssey took me through 9 countries, of which 8 were by car. The countries covered were India (8268 km – 17 days), Myanmar (3369 km – 11 days), Thailand (4744 km – 15 days), Lao DPR (2395 km – 9 days), Cambodia (688 kms – 3 days), Malaysia (2112 kms – 10 days), Singapore (59 kms – 4 days), Vietnam (0 km – 5 days), Indonesia (0km – 3 days). The Ford Endeavour, KL 29C 2131, consumed 2400 litres of diesel oil, with an average price of Rs. 51.50 across countries with mileage of 9 kms to a litre. 340 kms were covered per day, on an average, if the 64 driving days alone are factored in. Else, over the 77 days 280 kms were covered per day, on an average. 27 border crossings were done during the onward and return journeys, of which 25 were with the car. While the average cost of accommodation was Rs. 2000 per night, food and beverages cost Rs. 500 per day.

Cambodia was the only foreign country where USD didn’t have to be changed to local currency because of its wide acceptance from fruit juice vendors to hotels. Vietnam was a heart break because Customs officials did not accept the Carnet and insisted on ‘proper documents’ from the Ministry of Road Transport. The Ministry, in turn, wanted the application routed through an approved local tour operator and 5 to 10 working days to process the application, would have thrown my schedule completely off balance. Hence, the drive in Vietnam ended in their territory at the Tay Trang border post. The Ro-Ro ferry to Batam had been discontinued many years before and hence, my driving experience did not extend to Indonesia. Thailand is the only country that requires ‘Immigration Clearance’ for the car by way of ‘Information on Conveyance’ that has to be filled out and stamped at the importation border and submitted at the exportation border. Not knowing this cost me time, effort and money at Nong Khai, the Thai border with Lao DPR. While an immigration official wanted me to go back to the importation border and secure the relevant papers I managed to wriggle out of the tricky situation by paying a fine of THB 4000. Insurance for the car in Myanmar was secured by the tour agency while the Automobile Association of Singapore charged USD 200 for 6 days. I was unable to obtain car insurance for the rest of the countries despite my best efforts at the borders and in neighbouring towns. Some countries are even legally barred from insuring foreign registered vehicles.

The major hurdle for travelling by motorised transport from India to foreign countries is the need to obtain the Carnet de Passages en Douane (CPD or Carnet, in short), which identifies the driver’s motor vehicle. It is accepted by over 85 countries the world over as an alternative to paying duty deposits for temporary importation and exportation of the vehicle. European and Central Asian countries on the Kochi-London route did not require the Carnet. All countries on the South East Asian countries, except Vietnam, accepted the Carnet. The agency in India tasked with issuing the Carnet is the Automobile Association. The major hassle is making necessary Bank Guarantee for obtaining the Carnet. There is no standard practice either, which makes it discretionary. While the Western Indian AA accepts 200 per cent of the depreciated value of the vehicle as BG, the Southern Indian chapter takes 350 per cent of the original value of the vehicle. The difference between the chapters is not correct especially because the Carnet papers for customers in Chennai are sourced from Mumbai. Another major problem is the physical presentation and verification of the vehicle in the premises of the AA. While I had to take the car to Chennai to get the Carnet done, and later to get the BG released, involving huge costs, I am told that Western Indian AA requires only photographs of the car, the chassis and engine numbers. I wonder why there should be such major differences in the issuance of the Carnet within the country.

With the doors of Pakistan being virtually closed to tourists from India due to diplomatic and safety reasons the route options to Europe is via Nepal and China or from Iran after shipping the vehicle from Mumbai to Bandar Abbas. Nepal is grappling with the aftermath of one of the worst earthquakes in human history. Under the circumstances the India tourist will detour via Myanmar to China and thereon to Europe. Both Myanmar and China have financially crippling regulations unless the trip is in a group where the overheads can be spread over a larger group of tourists. I had to provide transport, accommodation and food for three persons during the Myanmar leg of the SEA Odyssey. The Rs. 3.5 lakhs for transiting Myanmar was more than one third of the overall cost if the trip.

The successful completion of the South East Asian Odyssey was possible only due the contribution of a large network of friends, family and professional organisations. It would be wrong not to mention them and a major faux pas if I missed out on even one of them. Weighing the options, therefore, I choose to acknowledge their contribution en bloc. I enjoyed their assistance, hospitality, friendship, suggestion, advice, encouragement and constructive criticism all through the odyssey. I made friends with amazing people who shared their wonderful experiences with me. I was always treated as family by people with who I stayed with and accepted unreservedly as a friend by those who I came to know on the journey. Help came from unexpected sources and the ‘invisible hand’ was visible all the time. Prayers of near and dear saw me through challenges that even threatened life. I am certain that I will never be able to repay even a fraction of the kindness and assistance I have received, but I remain indebted to all, may be even across lives. Because, I believe that one of the purposes of my travels is to meet fellow souls who travel with me through time and space.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Day 77 - 15 May 2015 - Chennai to Cochin

Yes, this was the day when the expedition would end in Cochin. UPM Advertising has been a major force in ensuring visibility of the expedition at the flag off, on social media and among friends and relatives. Mary George and Phillip Cherian have been pillars of support for almost all my expeditions. And it is with them that the responsibility of organising a reception in Tyrex vested. Silently they worked on it and all that I had to do was to confirm the time of arrival into Cochin. After I reached Chennai I confirmed to Mary that I would reach Cochin at 5 pm on 15 May.

Yesterday I half thought of engaging a Ford service station to take a look at the car because the acceleration was almost capped at 100 kmph and the initial resistance was accompanied by increasing sounds! Even then I decided to push the machine to its limits. After all, my expeditions have been about “Pushing The Limits”. And I banked on the ‘soul’ understanding the importance of the occasion and coming to the party. I was absolutely spot on as the Ford Endeavour stood up to be counted as a tough and hardy SUV that could be pushed to its limits.

I have done the Chennai-Cochin 650 plus stretch in about 10 hours, a few times in the past. However, this day I gave myself a couple of hours slack and left Chennai on the dot at 5 am. At the first toll gate on the Old Madras Road the attendant asked for Rs.10 without a ticket and let me pass. He made some pocket money this morning. Tushara had informed me that the article about the expedition would appear in this morning’s edition of The Hindu. Since it would be on the MetroPlus page I had to get a copy before leaving Chennai. I stopped after Pallavaram at a tea shop that had newspapers for sale. I picked up a copy of The Hindu and ordered a cup of coffee. While reading the article the Malayalee owner of the tea stall recognised the car from the picture and launched into a conversation. Subjects ranged from the Kerala registered car to the weather in Kerala; curiosity intertwined with factual information. When he started on the Mani controversy I decided to leave because a political discussion with a Malayalee could keep you pitched for hours!

Before Chingelput the skies opened up and copious rains lasted more than 30 minutes. Visibility was affected and traffic slowed down. Haphazard and negligent driving added to the risk of driving in such weather. The toll plaza at Chingelput was congested with drivers manoeuvring to get to the head of the queue. I wondered why queue discipline cannot be enforced in India if the same was possible before the Beverages Corporation outlets in Kerala!

Once the toll plaza was done with the drive up to Salem was fantastic. By about 10 am I reached Hotel Saravana Bhavan for breakfast. I normally stop at this neat and clean restaurant for a bite whenever I am on this route. I relaxed for a while and had idlis, dosa and coffee before getting back to the highway. Manoj Mullur, a friend who resided in Kodakara, was on a business visit to Tirupur. He requested for a lift back to his home town. We arranged to meet up on the highway and continued on the journey. Feeding on what was in the car and the coconut buns Manoj had got we decided to save time by skipping lunch.

The never ending road works between Coimbatore and Walayar did cost me time, but I was still operating to schedule. Crossing into Kerala at Walayar was an emotional moment – back home after 11 weeks. The condition of the road from Walayar to Palghat has improved considerably in the past year with most of it being four laned. Most of the private buses operating on this stretch are guilty of dangerous driving. On bad roads they are a nuisance and on good roads they are a risk.

Cinosh is a Facebook friend. He was in touch with me from the time I left Erode.  He wanted to meet me briefly when I was passing through Wadakkencherry. Followers like this enrich the expedition too. When you interact with them you realise how many dreams of travel lie unfulfilled in them. Therefore, your journey is vicariously fulfilling for them. We met up in front of a tea shop, where had had come with a friend of his. I tried to answer his questions as best as I could over a cup of tea and paripu vadas. Manoj had arranged for pudding cake at a shop in Kodakara. This is a speciality of this town. It is the ‘secret recipe’ of a household in Kodakara. The cake is a pudding too; it is heavenly with vanilla ice cream. I bought two kgs of the pudding cake, had a couple of lime sherbets and made for the highway – the last stretch to the finish point.

When I left Kodakara I had about two hours to reach Cochin. It would be enough, in the normal course. But traffic is unpredictable after Alwaye and the ongoing Metro works could delay you beyond reasonable time. However, this day I was lucky. I informed Mary that I would reach at least 15 minutes before time. She wanted me to stay on the road and come in only after the media personnel and others had arrived. I did that and reached Tyrex when I was asked too. The media was well represented. Photo sessions, interviews and interaction went on for more than an hour. I felt bad that I could not spend time with those who had come to greet me, friends and relatives. Once the media interaction was over the log sheet was filled up for the last time, the sticker for India was affixed signifying the end of the Expedition and the released bank Guarantee was handed over to Trans Asia.

Friends in Alfa Serene, my residence, waited for over an hour there with bouquet and cake for me to complete the Tyrex rendezvous. Many were still there when I reached the apartment close to 7pm. We spent some time together over a few stories from the expedition. And the homecoming was complete. The South East Asian Odyssey was done and dusted successfully. The Himalayan Expedition remains a dream. Some day, not too far, I hope!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Day 76 - 14 May 2015 - In Chennai

The photoshoot in the morning in Marina Beach would happen only if it didn’t rain, Suzanne had said last night. Abraham had warned me to be at the location in time because Suzanne and Tushara would be there as the clock strikes, he was sure. With light to medium rain clouds gathering in the distant I forewent breakfast and reached the Gandhi Statue on Marine Drive a half hour before the appointed time. With the beach and the Police headquarters in the background, I was taking a few selfies when a police constable requested me to park the car parallel to the kerb. I had not realised that the length of the car would be an obstruction to through traffic during peak time. Watching the calm sea that morning I could not fathom the destruction that tsunami waves had caused there that fateful Christmas Eve.

Ashok Thomas, Tushara and the photographer arrived just when the sun shone brightly and the light was right for the photoshoot. Suzanne informed that she was on the way and that the shoot could proceed. In between positioning the car and posing for pictures I caught up on matters personal and professional with Ashok. In about an hour’s time we were almost done with the session when Susanne arrived by her two wheeler, drenched from head to toe. Apparently, she had been delayed en route by heavy rain and later she just braved it and landed up at the location. She brought rain to Marina Beach along with her. We all sought refuge in the car till a slight let up permitted us to say goodbyes and clamber into our own transports to head back to where we wanted to.

My immediate task was to get to Saravana Bhavan for breakfast. I seldom miss an opportunity to have ‘tiffin’ in the restaurant when I visit Chennai. Over the years the restaurant chain has spread its wings far and wide, with branches in the Gulf, USA and Europe. My personal favourite in the city is the one on Dr Radhakrishnan Salai. Parking is often a problem there during peak hours. But I managed a slot this time without having to wait. The interior of the restaurant has remained the same over the past fifteen years, as also the taste of ‘sambar’, which is the best in the country to me. I ordered mini tiffin, which had small portions of 14 idlis, masala dosa, pongal and rava kesari. The strong coffee shook off any lethargy that may have crept up, willy nilly, in the wet weather.

The additional day was scheduled in Chennai to complete redemption formalities of the Bank Guarantee in the office of the Automobile Association of Southern India. The car will be inspected as part of the process and the Carnet papers examined before the BG is returned. I had informed the Secretary of the AASI in advance and he had already done the preliminary work by the time I reached the office. In less than an hour the redeemed BG was in my possession. As I was leaving the office Shanmughum, the Secretary, told me that he had two visitors who wanted to drive a three wheeler from India to Europe. I met them on the way out and wished them well.

Thereafter, I had two business meetings, one over lunch, exploring consultancy options. When I was in the first, Rahul and Naveen, the duo who were preparing to travel to Europe by a solar tuk-tuk, sought an appointment. I met them halfway through the luncheon meeting at the Taj Vivanta. I was fascinated by the efforts of the two planning a zero emission drive. The vehicle is being put together by them from scratch and that is posing them a problem about obtaining Carnet since the original specs of the vehicle is totally altered and it also does not have registration details, which the AASI was insisting on. I passed on whatever information I had based on my two overseas expedition experiences. They have planned to ship the tuk-tuk to Bander Abbas in Iran and drive on through 10 countries and 10,000 kms in Europe. Such initiatives, I suggested to AASI, must be encouraged.

I got back to Perungudi to spend time with Mrs and Mr Pius Joseph, Peechappan Uncle and Mariamma Elayamma to me. They have been more like parents to me and they have always treated me as their own.  I had proposed to go out for dinner, but Peechappan Uncle suggested that we spend time at home. The hospitality of the couple is legendary and you get the best food in Chennai in their home. He also organised a lovely cake to celebrate my 57th birthday.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 75 - 13 May 2015 - Visakhapatnam to Chennai

It was time to leave the City of Destiny. Except for a few of my expeditions like North-South, East-West and that to London, Visakhapatnam always figured in the itinerary. The hospitality of Thulasi Ram and his family has been the prime reason for that. During this expedition Visakhapatnam had not originally figured in the return trip because of the Himalayan Expedition that was to be attempted immediately on conclusion of this one in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh. However, the earthquake and aftershocks in Nepal changed all that. It was only ten days back that I redid the South East Asian itinerary to cut out the Himalayan Expedition. When the reroute was done I sought the assistance of Gopal Mohanty in Kolkata and Thulasi Ram in Visakhapatnam for accommodation in Guwahati, Malda, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam. It was standard operating procedure. No matter what, they were always there for me. Into this category fall KB Singh in Imphal, Moncy Thomas in Bangkok, Ajo David in Batam, Sreekanth Nair in Singapore and Anand Kumar in Kuala Lumpur, whose support and encouragement were singular factors in the successful and enjoyable completion of this expedition. The rich interactions and experiential learnings through these helpful souls, and others who they helped network with, enriched the expedition’s objective – Goodwill Knows No Boundaries.

Thulasi Ram was ready with a hot cup of coffee by the time I woke up and started putting my things together. He insisted on another before a bath and getting dressed for the last city on the East coast, Chennai.  He also loaded up the car with plenty of water and a flask of hot water, my basic essentials. The sky was slowly getting lit up to welcome the planet’s residents on this part of it to another glorious day when I drove the short distance from the flat to the highway. The first task was to fill fuel, which I did soon. The curiosity of the fuel station attendant about the expedition was overwhelmed by my shock on seeing the rate per litre of diesel – Rs. 57.44 – the highest I paid during the entire expedition! I wished it would last till I exited the state. The average fuel price thus far on the expedition has been Rs. 51.25.

Toll plazas are many on the NH5, from Kolkata to Chennai, as they are on most major highways. Some of them are so congested that it generates handsome business for local residents, who vend eatables, newspaper, flowers and the like. Besides the large number of vehicles indiscipline by road users, some of whom decide that queues are not meant for them, add to the delay and unnecessary stress. I wonder why the worthies that hire such drivers do not rein them in. Even if they are in such a tearing hurry why don’t they realise that others in the queue value their time too. Such things happen purely because of lack of respect for their fellow human beings. To top it all, I have been absolutely frustrated by toll plaza attendants who cannot muster enough change or some that are downright inefficient.

Is there no alternative to the humongous infrastructure for toll collection that NHAI puts up as part of the road building initiative? Of course, there are. During the drive to London I experienced one such. At the border to a country one could buy a toll token for a specific number of days; the rate varied depending on the number of days, with a basic minimum number of days. Once that is stuck on the windshield one could drive for that many days on the highways of the country without having to stop anywhere to pay for the transit. As simple as that. The use of smart cards is another alternative deployed in Malaysia and Singapore. Can we not introduce a system in India where we would be able to purchase tolls for specific trips or on monthly basis on line, depending on the intensity of use? Making the use of smart cards compulsory is another alternative. These initiatives will not only obviate the need for capital expenditure on large toll plazas the government will not have to depend on an external agency for collection of revenues due to it. Most importantly, the money is realised prior to the use of the infrastructure without collection cost. Disputes with collection agencies will also be eliminated.

By 9.30 am I could no longer control hunger; biscuits, coffee and dry fruits had struck a temporary truce, but the stomach yearned for a hot meal. I stopped at a wayside shop for a quick bite of cold and oily puris and hot peas and potato curry. The breakfast cost me Rs.8! The drive, thereafter, to Chennai was largely uneventful through Vijayawada, Guntur and Nellore. The road surfacing was good and the traffic not so heavy.

I had a 7.30pm rendezvous with Suzanne Myrtle Lazarus of The Hindu for an interview, which was facilitated by Ashok Thomas, a good friend I have known since his student days in Chennai. He is the founder of a successful communications agency. The interview was scheduled at The Raintree in Adyar and Google Maps led me to the one on Mount Road! However, I recovered in time to reach the appointed venue a bit behind schedule, where I met up with Suzanna and Ashok’s colleague, Tushara. Over the next one hour Suzanna quizzed me on points that she had already jotted down and some others that arose from the discussion. Before taking leave she wanted to see the Champion that had been my uncomplaining companion for the expedition. I pointed out to her the scars of ‘injury’ she suffered in Nagaland and West Bengal; the accidents that I had had in those states. We parted after deciding to meet up in Marina Beach the next day morning for a photoshoot session.

My cousins, Tommy and Abraham, and nephew Ajay reached The Raintree just as the interview session was winding up.  We went to the Boat Club for dinner. I was amazed by the transformation of the premises. I hadn’t been there for many years. The restaurant was aesthetically done up and was commodious. Despite the slow service I enjoyed the rum and food, after which we headed for Perungudi. I was the ‘mehman’ of Abraham for the two days that I would be in Chennai.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Day 74 - 12 May 2015 - Kolkata to Visakhapatnam

I did not think I would survive the road journey this day to write this piece. It was a day on which I lurched from one ‘near death’ experience to another. I had no inkling of what was in store when I left the Garden Reach ORH just as the sky was lighting up with traces of a new dawn. The Vidya Sagar Setu Bridge looked lovely decked up in multi coloured lights. The Rs. 10 toll charge for the bridge must be the lowest anywhere in the world. Kolkata is still one of the cheapest cities to live in in India. Being fond of street food I ventured into a small eatery opposite the SER headquarters building last evening and had four chappatis and vegetable curry for Rs. 12! I was embarrassed to hand over a 500 rupee note, but the vendor returned change without hesitating even once!

The concrete road up to Balasore was treacherous since it has been excavated at intermittent intervals for repairs. Every km had at least two diversions. The road closures were unscientific; instead of closing off one side of the road for, say, 50 km there were more than 50 diversions for that distance shifting from one side to the other. NHAI and the contracting agency must be proceeded against for taking up such major works without adequate safety precautions. When diversions are made traffic from the opposite side is not warned of the traffic that may come headlong at them. Moreover, the vehicles taking the diversion must be asked to switch on their headlights to warn the vehicles on the correct side of the road. Speed must be restricted for such diverted traffic to 40 kmph and rumble strips must be placed to facilitate this. In addition, even when there is no diversion tractors and motor bikes wantonly switch lanes and drive on in the wrong direction. In a couple of such instances I braked and prayed, which was all I could do since a crash was imminent. In a couple of others I swerved and missed the oncoming car and bike.

The Commissioner for Railway Safety approves the opening of a section of the railway track for passenger traffic, after ensuring that all construction and safety standards have been complied with. Such a statutory regulation ensures that standards are not flouted and guarantees certain quality in construction and uncompromising safety requirements. It is my considered thought that the central Transport Ministry must create a similar authority tasked with ensuring construction and safety standards. The ‘Commissioner for Road Safety’ should approve the road design and safety features incorporated in the design, inspect the construction at frequent intervals and approve the section of the road before throwing it open for movement of traffic, whether freight or passenger. Even closing major section of roads for repairs must have his ‘work process’ consent and compliance must be strictly monitored.

I had every intention of taking the car to the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar, as Thulasi Ram had made arrangements for priority inspection and attention. As I neared Cuttack I changed the plan because of the time I would lose in the process. Between Cuttack and Bhubaneswar I lost a lot of time in congestion and decided to drive through to Visakhapatnam. The sounds emanating from the car had abated some, I reasoned. Acceleration was affected still and the grating sound was persistent. However, I thought it better to drive on and attend to the car in Chennai, where I had an extra day. I prayed that she would go on till then.

Will the correct NH number please identify itself? The leg of the quadrilateral from Kolkata to Chennai had the nomenclature of NH5 and was arguably the best among the NHs in India. However, this day’s driving experience suggested that that was past glory. Driving on from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam the National Highway number for that stretch varied from NH5 to NH60 to NH16! How crass? NHAI may be in the process of evolving a different set of numbers, but then, they should be consistent. Moreover, when new signages are placed the old ones must be removed so that the road user is not given conflicting or wrong information.

Once I got past Bhubaneswar the condition of the road improved and I was able to make up some time. Gopalpur, Berhampore and Ichchapuram passed by. I crossed over from Odisha to Andhra Pradesh. Freight traffic was not so high, which permitted faster motoring, without having to weave and dodge them. Thulasi Ram had arranged with the correspondent of The Hindu to do a report on the expedition. Accordingly, the photographer of the newspaper met us at the outskirts of the city. The car had gathered dust and grime over the past few days on the road. Before the arrival of the photographer she was given a minor makeover with water and soap solution. Once the photography session was over Thulasi Ram piloted me to his flat, which was just a short deviation from the highway.

Thulasi Ram took me to the Cozinha De Goa for dinner, after a couple of bottles of Budweiser at home. He claimed that preparations of fish and seafood at the restaurant are unmatched in the City of Destiny. He could not have been more right. We were joined in the restaurant by Rani Devalla, the correspondent of The Hindu. Over heavy snacks of fish fry and prawns we discussed the expedition and Rani made notes. In a short while she was done with what she wanted and Thulasi Ram and I continued with the rest of the meal. The food was amazing and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I had only two more days of heavy driving left to complete the expedition in Cochin, from where it had started on 28 February. This day I had done over 870 km in less than 14 hours of driving. Visakhapatnam being the midpoint between Kolkata and Chennai, it was another 850 km plus to the capital city of Tamil Nadu.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Day 73 - 11 May 2015 - Malda to Kolkata

It had rained heavily overnight and the sky was still overcast when I loaded the luggage into the car; the quantum of soiled clothes started outweighing the fresh ones. I calculated that for the remainder of the trip I would need a couple of fresh t-shirts and socks. The rest were fine. The caretaker of the ORH gave me a flask full of hot water so that I could have some coffee on the way.

I was apprehensive about Google Maps showing me the way out of the town because of the experience on the way into it. I had hit a few dead ends before reaching the ORH. But, this morning, a repeat did not happen and I eased on to the NH 34. Despite it being early morning truck traffic was heavy; on the approach to the Farakka Barrage there was a huge hold up that took away more than 30 minutes. That’s when I decided to have a cup of hot coffee waiting for the congestion to clear up. The traffic across the barrage was being directed by paramilitary personnel, who were also in charge of guarding the barrage. When I got on to the barrage I realised that the huge traffic jam was caused by the breakdown of two freight laden trucks at two critical places of the two km long barrage. The trucks looked so run down and sure to break down that it was no surprise that they had. However, the incident called into question the impact of such incidents at such a strategic location. It could be a sinister ploy with ulterior motives, to a conspiracy theorist.

The Farakka Barrage has an interesting history. The barrage was 14 years under construction between 1961 and 1975. The objective of the barrage across the Ganges was to divert water from the Ganges to the Hoogly River at such velocity as to flush sedimentation and obviate the need for mechanical dredging of siltation in the harbour. After commissioning the barrage it was discovered that the objective could not be met. Moreover, land banks along the Ganges started caving in leading to displacement of large populations. The project that did not fulfil its requirement cost the Indian exchequer Rs. 160 crores! Traffic across the barrage is regulated at 20 kmph and photography is prohibited. The poor condition of the road does not permit faster transit, which prompts people to take photographs at leisure!

Once I was through the Farakka hold up I expected to make steady progress. However, I experimented a lot with alternate routes to experience rural areas. While that was so I was also losing time as the roads did not permit fast drives. Moreover, many villages were busy organising VIP visits. I finally landed up at Memari after navigating through some of the narrowest lanes a car could get through. Before hitting the highway to Kolkata I turned into a fuel station to fill up the tank.

The fuel station attendant of the BPCL outlet was so curious about the stickers on the car that he launched into a long chat with me about the expedition. When he came to know that I am from Kerala he told me that the state has had a Chief Minister by his first name – Achuta (Menon). He amazed me by his knowledge of Kerala; later he mentioned that he had had a friend from Thiruvalla in Kerala and that he had visited the state for a function in his friend’s house. The inquisitiveness, the information base and the proclivity to open up to strangers are common to Kerala and West Bengal. Achutho was over the moon when I gave him a copy of Record Drives…And Then Some!

From the fuel station it was just 6 km to the NH2 that would take me to the link road to Garden Reach, the headquarters of South Eastern Railway (SER). I made very good progress on the brilliantly carpeted NH2 and caught up on some time I had lost in exploring the countryside. The sounds emanating from the car, during the course of the day, seemed to ebb and rise. The whistling sound reduced substantially but the grating was a bit louder. I had arranged with Pandey, Secretary to Chief Operations Manager (COM), SER, to find a Ford service station close to Garden Reach. He deputed a person so that I would not have to ask around. When we reached where we had to I was told that the service station had shifted to a location that would take me a few hours to navigate up and down. I decided to postpone the attention to the car. Thulasi Ram, my friend in Visakhapatnam, arranged with a Ford service station in Bhubaneswar to attend to the problem en route to Visakhapatnam from Kolkata tomorrow.

AK Gupta and I joined the Indian Railway Traffic Service as probationers on the same day in Mussoorie on 1 September 1981. He is among the senior most in my batch surviving the retirement ‘mela’. Batchmates have been retiring virtually every month. AK Gupta is presently the COM of the railway. He was at the fag end of his lunch when I walked in demanding samosas! He got me sandwiches and cutlets with excellent mangoes to wind up. Over many cups of tea I caught up on railway news and uploaded what I had to on social media and the blog site.

RK Gupta and I had been colleagues in Bilaspur Division of SER when I worked there in 1988-89. It was a tough working life in one of the heaviest freight loading divisions of the Indian Railways, but, at the same time, most enjoyable. Night morphed into day and vice versa in the office without, on many days, even going home. The camaraderie amongst officers cutting across departments was high and RK Gupta and his family became dear family friends during the sojourn in Bilaspur. Despite many phone conversations I had not been able to reconnect with them as our careers took us to different parts of India. Therefore, when I came to know that RK Gupta was in Kolkata, posted as General Manager of Eastern Railway, I lost no time in ‘demanding an audience’. The meeting was an occasion to motor down memory lane and I was proud to appreciate the wonderful career path his life had seen. His contribution to the Indian Railways as Chief Administrative Officer of the Jammu project will be written in letters of gold whenever that chapter is written.

Gopal Mohanty, the erstwhile COM of SER, and I spent a couple of hours exchanging notes and discussing the assignment he had picked up post retirement as Advisor to Steel Authority of India. Gopal is an infrastructure person. He has, therefore, been rightly tasked by SAIL to advise them on infrastructural requirements to handle the expansion plans of their plants.

Ahead of me lay two days of heavy driving. The Kolkata-Visakhapatnam and Visakhapatnam-Chennai segments were over 850 km each. It would take me more than 13 hours of driving on both the days. Moreover, I anticipated at least two hours of stoppage at the Ford service station in Bhubaneswar. Tomorrow would be a long day.

Day 72 - 10 May 2015 - Maligaon to Malda

There are days when nothing goes right. This day was one such. Indications of it came early when the GPS directed me from the rest house to the General Manager’s house, instead of on to the main road. Then I hit the busy railway gate of Kamakhya railway station and remained there for 15 minutes, instead of taking the alternate route to avoid it. At that time I did not know that greater delays were to happen during the journey to Malda.

The drive to Malda would take me about 12 hours, I calculated, to cover over 650 km. I have done the stretch many times in the past, including the forward leg of this expedition. Road conditions as well as the heavy freight traffic slow down traffic. Hence, I marked a 5 am start and made the rest house charges last night itself. Of the two routes to Malda I chose the Bongaigaon-Alipurduar-Dalkola route. Driving was alright till I reached the outskirts of Dalkola and I was maintaining an average speed of 55 kmph.

Dalkola is a busy three way intersection. One road comes in from the North East, on which I was, the other goes to Purnea in Bihar and the third is the Malda-Kolkota route. The last named, which is NH34, goes through the city of Dalkola while the Assam-Bihar link is NH31. As you drive in on NH31, NH34 is a left turn at the intersection. About three km short of the intersection there was an incredible traffic jam of freight vehicles in which the passenger vehicles were squeezed in. NH31, nearing the Dalkola intersection is a six lane dual carriageway. Vehicles for NH34 and those continuing on NH31 towards Purnea not only occupied every inch of space on the correct lanes, but also did so on two of the lanes meant for traffic in the opposite direction. I have always encountered some block at this junction during my drives in the past but this was absolutely the limit. I thought the traffic jam was caused by some accident or police checks. It was neither. It is corn harvesting time and vehicles of all shapes, sizes and vintage loaded with corn were wanting access to Dalkola. Not a single member of any traffic enforcement agency was in sight. Local enterprise kept traffic moving. It took me nearly an hour to clear that congestion and turn onto NH34. When I did that I thought that the worst was over. Not knowing the future has its merits. If I had known that 18 km of vehicle queue awaited me on NH34 I may have abandoned the car and walked away! Yes, the queue of trucks waiting to get to the intersection from NH34, from Kolkata, was 18 km long. After waiting an eternity in the queue towards Malda I followed an enterprising driver in a Scorpio, who took the road less travelled, and reached ahead of a part of the queue in the city. From there I did some aggressive driving and got to the top half of the queue from where I could see the reason for the congestion. Indiscipline and ‘might is right’ attitude was holding up traffic with no one in control. Not a single police man or anyone even remotely resembling them were anywhere in sight. Dalkola is an incredibly dirty city and with the congestion one gets to appreciate just that! After being stuck in queues for nearly two and half hours I slowly started moving on. I still had 125 km to reach the ORH in Malda. Light was fading fast and I am loathe to drive in the night for reasons of safety. Even during the daytime vehicles zip on the wrong side of the road and at many times I was taken unawares. Moreover at many places road works are in progress and there are no clear indications for diversion; vehicles head in your direction suddenly without warning of road on the other side being closed. In the night this problem gets magnified as the roads are unlit and whatever signages are placed are not visible. Shoulders of the concrete roads are thick without kerb stones placed to warn road users of the edge of the road. Many trucks lay on their side having misjudged the edge of the road. NHAI is culpable for poor warnings and inadequate safety measures during the construction phase of the project.

The accident I had yesterday in Nagaland had set off funny sounds in the car. It started as a whistling sound while accelerating. Higher the acceleration the higher was the whistling sound. After a while I learnt how to reduce the sound by controlling the acceleration. Nevertheless, the sound was definitely there. People on the road and drivers of other vehicles stared at the car. In some ways I got unwanted attention, but some vehicles moved to let me pass! Then came a grating sound. I was convinced that the car would not last till the end of the expedition. Moreover, the pick up of the car was also affected. I had to get it checked in Kolkata.

By the time I reached the Officers’ Rest House in Malda I was exhausted mentally. I had not had hot food right through the day. It had been figs, dates, biscuits, chocolates and candies. I yearned for a hot meal, but, at the same time, was inclined to go out to a restaurant after reaching the ORH. Fortunately, the caretaker of the ORH assured me a decent vegetarian meal and an omelette in 30 minutes. By the time I had refreshed and changed clothes the young man brought me rotis, dal, vegetable curry and omelette.

I made all the ORH payments since I intended to leave at 5 am for Kolkata. I needed some time there to attend to the car. By the time I went to bed I heard loud thunder in the distant and knew that it would be a stormy night. Would it delay my departure the next morning?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Day 71 - 9 May 2015 - Imphal to Maligaon

This is my third visit to Manipur, the second in this expedition. Every time I come here I learn something new. Something that may not be known to most people living outside the state is that the Indian Flag and the Constitution are ‘outlawed’ in Manipur. The more than 30 underground outfits – UGs or local armies, as they are known – have made it ‘punishable’ to display the Indian Flag and to owe allegiance to the Indian Constitution. Therefore, the flag is flown or displayed only in government offices. Republic and Independence Day celebrations are not conducted in public. They are normally days of ‘bandh’. Flag hoisting is confined to army camps and high government offices. Singing the National Anthem is a criminal offence as per the diktat of the UGs. Extortion by the UGs is rampant in the guise of local ‘tax’ and protection money. Recently many schools in Imphal faced forced closure for over a week as the managements refused to yield to the demand of the UGs for school seats, that are openly ‘sold’ by them to fund their outfit. Is this the result of the policies of the Indian Government over the many years when they refused to recognise and promote this strategically important, culturally significant and historically inalienable part of the Indian Union and ignored it? The ‘Look East’ policy of the present government will hopefully address this major policy flaw of the past.

Fr Joseph, my benefactor in Imphal, was up early. He was there with a cheerful smile and a loud greeting when I was arranging luggage in the car. Last evening he had told me about the marigold seeds he had brought from Switzerland, where he had been to visit his sister. The seeds have produced many beds of lovely flowers. I had expressed a desire to have some of the seeds to take back to Kerala. He handed me a packet of them this morning, even though I had forgotten it. Fr. Joseph is moving over to the elder priests’ residence next week, where he will lead a retired life.

In the two months that I travelled in South East Asia I took for granted good roads and disciplined user behaviour. While the stretch from Moreh to Imphal was in reasonable condition, that from Imphal to Dimapur is in an awful state of disrepair and neglect. Border Roads Organisation claims that they connect the nation. If the condition of the road is taken into consideration the connection is ‘missing’. Wide yawning craters, poor surfacing, dangerous undulations and unscientific speed bumps are a nightmare. I was almost a nervous wreck by the time I covered Dimapur, a distance of 200 plus km in 7 hours! Crawling through the 15 km congestion in Chumukadema and Dimapur added to the misery. The roads got better once I entered the Karbi Anglong district of Assam. Such poor infrastructure is a national shame. Do the people of the region not deserve anything better or is it the prevailing parallel state the reason for such abject conditions? Whatever, the condition is pathetic.

While coming down the last stretch of the hills to the police check post in Chumkudema I rear ended an empty poultry truck that cut in sharply and braked in front of the car. Even though I braked the distance was too short to prevent the mishap. From the driver’s seat I could see the Hella lights getting crushed. I parked to the side to examine the damage. The truck stopped too. By the time I had surveyed the damage to the car he had taken off after ascertaining that there was no damage to the truck! In Chumkudema I went to a small garage to remove the broken lights and the bracket. That is when I realised that the bonnet had got jammed because the grill got pushed in with the impact. I only hope that I am able to get back to Cochin to repair the damage without having to open the bonnet.

Once I got on to the NH 37 to Guwahati I was able to catch on some of the lost time. I reached the Railway Officers’ Rest House in Maligaon by 3.45 pm. The 480 km drive had taken me nearly 11 hours, of course with stoppages for breakfast at Mao, the Manipur border, and others necessitated by biological requirement. It looks to me that distances are longer in India due to the time required to cover them! In Maligaon I had enough time to clean the car, rearrange luggage and lounge around.

There was no WiFi in the ORH and without it I could not upload pictures and the blog post. I may have to wait till I get to Visakhapatnam because I do not expect the ORHs in Malda and Garden Reach, Kolkata to have them either. I learnt from the Caretaker of the rest house that it was Club Day that day and a movie would be screened in the auditorium. When I went there the movie had just begun – Hawaizaada. I watched it for a while. Actually the reason for going in there was to meet the officers of the zonal railway, which was defeated due to the movie. I returned to the room after 15 minutes and I sought the company of the ‘Mechin’ that KB Singh had presented me in Imphal. The excellent rice distillate was so potent that dinner still remains a mystery. I remember having walked to the dining hall, but not the walk back.

Day 70 - 8 May 2015 - Kalay to Imphal

The excitement of being so close to India, perhaps, kept me up from 3 am. On the forward leg my friend in Imphal, KB Singh, had made stay arrangements in the Moreh Trade Centre. This time I decided to go on to Imphal and requested him to meet Fr. Joseph, Director of St. Thomas Seminary in Imphal, and ask for a guest room in the seminary. He did that and confirmed the arrangements to me. The distance from Kalay to Tamu, the border town is less than 140 km and that from there to Imphal is just over 100 km. Factoring in the time required to process papers at the two borders, the last of the expedition, and the one hour time gain as I crossed into India I expected to be in Imphal by 1 pm IST.

I had not had dinner last night as I had decided to snack on a few things I had with me. The mental exhaustion had put me to bed early, but I paid the price of having to get up early too. Breakfast in the hotel was sparse, but I was hungry. With breakfast out of the way I requested Myint Hsuang, the government official who was accompanying me, to place the tick marker on Myanmar, which he gleefully did. Then it was time for a photo session, with the hotel staff pitching in too.

The road from Kalay to Tamu has over 60 bridges, very few of them permanent. Most of them were temporary steel girders with either steel sections placed across or wooden sections topped with tar. Some of them were in urgent need of replacement while a few other critical ones were already under replacement leading to short diversions. On the way we passed the Tropic of Cancer. As we reached Tamu we dropped by at the office of the Ministry of Transport to hand over the temporary license plate of the car and make necessary entries. After that Thein and I went to the market to take a couple of photocopies while Myint and Aye dropped in to make booking for their return to Mandalay. In the market I dropped into a shop selling beer and other essentials. The young boy in the shop started quoting prices in Indian Rupees; which seemed to be the norm in most border towns where the stronger currency was in demand. I picked up a few bottles of Myanmar beer and paid for them with the remainder of the kyats I had on me and also Indian Rupees to bridge the gap.

The Customs formalities were completed first, where the Carnet was stamped after which the car was examined for the details mentioned in the Carnet such as make of the car, year of manufacture, chassis and engine number. A huge tree in the compound had been uprooted in stormy weather a couple of weeks before. Fortunately it had not fallen on any of the buildings. The Customs staff told us how they felt the tremors following the massive earthquake in Nepal. Work at the immigration was completed by Aye and the visa was cancelled with the exit stamp on it. It was time to move across to India over the Friendship Bridge. I took leave of the trio who had been my travel companions over the past five days. I feel that the number should be reduced to just the guide in case self driving trips have to be promoted in Myanmar.

I eased the car on to the steel bridge at Tamu at 11.15 am and continued onwards to the Land Customs Station in Moreh where it was 10.15 am. The Customs and Immigration officials had not yet reached the office. In a short while both teams arrived and I first got the customs formalities done. They recognised me from the earlier visit and over friendly talk completed all the formalities smoothly. The computer and applications for immigration were not working but the process was completed manually. Once I was through all that, one of the immigration officials told me that it may not be possible for me to get through to Imphal as there had been simmering tension in Pallel over the past week following the death of a woman in a civilian firing incident. I immediately became apprehensive but decided to push on till the Pallel gate, which was closed following the incident, I was told. Worst coming to the worst I would seek refuge in one of the army camps en route, I told myself.

The Moreh to Pallel route is mountainous region with sharp winding and climbing roads. There was not a soul on the road, except cattle and the Ford Endeavour, till I reached the first army check point, about 10 km from Moreh. All vehicles have to be parked in designated areas there for thorough search. While waiting for the search of the car one of the Assam Rifles men confirmed that the Pallel Gate is indeed closed. He suggested an untarred diversion through a few villages that could take me beyond Pallel. He asked me to confirm that from the last Army check point at Tengnoupal. The person deployed to check the car asked me a few questions about the trip and I opened a couple of boxes in the car for his inspection. Signalling the end of the inspection he made the statement, “people like you will not do anything which is against the interests of the country”. Their responsibilities are huge and I appreciated that. I was given a small paper token on which details of the car and the search were entered. I was told to present them to the two army check points ahead.

Army personnel were out in large numbers on route marches. Only broken down trucks were on the road this day. At the second check point I presented the token and after inspection the two army men waved me on. Tengnoupal is the highest point on the Moreh – Imphal route. It was cold there when I parked the car at the checkpoint and got out to enquire about the alternative way to Imphal. The army men asked me to enquire from the drivers whose cars were being searched. None the drivers was cogent enough with their responses, but one woman gave me directions to move through the untarred road from there on a 30 km diversion. She also warned me not to take the route in case I was short on fuel. I was pondering the alternatives when a Guardian Angel appeared. One of the army men who was watching me from a distance came up to me and told me that I would be permitted to go through Pallel if I told the personnel manning the gate that I am a lone tourist in  the private vehicle. I thanked him profusely and distributed copies of my book before leaving the check point.

Pallel was 24 km from the Tengnoupal check point. With prayers on my lips and some anxiety in my mind I motored on. As I neared the Pallel gate I saw a long queue of trucks, tourist buses and taxis. A closed truck was moving ahead of me. I followed that closely avoiding the queue. In a short while the closed truck stopped and the rear door opened. That is when I realised that it was an army truck. Armed men exited from the truck and it moved a bit further, which gave me the space to manoeuvre the car between the queue of vehicles and the truck. When I did that I got to the Pallel gate which prevented the vehicles from moving beyond that point. As I approached the gate no one stopped me or asked me any questions. I moved smoothly through the gate and took the Imphal road. I was surprised because I had been told that not a single vehicle was being permitted through. My passage was too smooth to accept that I was passing through a very tense area. If it were not for the heavy army presence and the absence of vehicles on the road there was nothing to suggest that anything was wrong.

When I was approaching the Pallel area with anxiety, my prayers were interrupted by a phone call. It was my Godmother from Bangalore. It was a total surprise. Lily Ammayi asked if all was well and I told her that I would call her back since I was driving through a difficult area. She wished me safe transit and confessed that she had connected by mistake. I feel that it was His intervention and not any mistake. The rest of the drive to Imphal was smooth. I dropped by at a fuel station to tank up and asked if there was any restaurant close by to have lunch. It was 2 pm; I was off my estimated time by an hour due to the checks and stoppages en route. I had a lovely non vegetarian combo meal of fish curry, dal, mixed vegetable, rotis and steamed rice at the Classik Hotel. I was hungry as hell and did not bother about the waiters who were watching me wolfing down the meal, disregarding the ‘manners’ they have come to expect of guests who patronise the hotel.

Network is congested in Manipur. I could not get through to KB Singh after I had cleared the Pallel gate, as he had directed, but did so when I was at lunch. He gave me directions to reach the St Thomas Seminary, which I reached without much ado and found Fr Joseph waiting for me. He was happy that I had made it back safe and in good health. Later the priests of the retirement home told me how they and Fr Joseph had kept me in their prayers throughout the expedition. I was truly moved. KB Singh came by to the seminary and we spent some time with Fr Joseph. We were joined by a couple of other elderly priests too. KB Singh had arranged with ISTV, the local network, to interview me. They arrived and the interview and videos were done over the next 45 minutes. After a lively interaction with the elder priests, the oldest of who was 90 years old – yet another Fr. Joseph – who had spent 57 years of his mission in Manipur, KB Singh and I spent an hour or so in my room discussing how our lives had panned out.

Once Fr. Joseph announced dinner I said goodbye to KB Singh who had been a major source of support for my travel through Manipur. Dinner consisted of fried fish and curry, dal and soupy salad. The food was extremely tasty. Fresh Kerala plantains, Palayamkodan, that are grown in plenty in the area, served as dessert.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Day 69 - 7 May 2015 - Mandalay to Kalay

This stretch was done in two days when I travelled the first leg of the expedition from India. Doing it in a day would be a challenge, I knew, for the roads wound through mountains and were under repair in many places. To top it all, major part of the nearly 500 km is a single carriageway passing through villages and busy little cities. Monywa is about 150 km from Mandalay. From Monywa there are two routes to Kalay. The shorter one is 175 km and the longer route is 320 km. Thein insisted that we should take the longer route because the shorter route is frequented by heavy trucks that have churned up the mud road and made it unsuitable for movement of cars. Huge, spikey rocks damage the tyres, too. So, it was to be a long, slower drive of about 500 km this day.

As suggested by Thein, Myint Sang, Aye and I were ready to leave Mandalay Hotel by 5 am. Thein had stayed overnight in another hotel and could turn up only at a half past since taxis were scarce early in the morning. The early morning traffic and procession of monks had begun by the time we reached the Ayeyarawady River. I stopped there for a while to take in the sunrise, the river bed and the bridges across the river. While the New Ava Bridge was commissioned in 2008 the old bridge, Ava Bridge, was built by the British in 1934, which suffered extensive damage in aerial bombings of WWII. The third bridge is the rail cum road bridge. The bridges span Mandalay on one side and Sagaing Hill on the other. Sagaing Hill is dotted with pagodas and gompas. Almost half the monk population of Myanmar is resident in Mandalay and Sagaing Hill.

The Mandalay Hotel has an excellent breakfast spread. Foregoing that for an early start was a tough gastronomic decision. However, the stomach gave way to the heart; the hotel gave us packs that contained emaciated sandwiches, a heavier than shotput egg and a plantain that tasted nothing like a plantain. I shared that with Thein on the way, while Myint Sang and Aye feasted on their packs in the car. As we neared Monywa the bikes on the roads became chaotic and there was a lot of random behaviour by youngsters. I was told that that city has the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of road accidents! I was asked to be extra careful driving through the city and I was. We stopped at a tea house in Monywa for breakfast. The small shop that doubled up as residence also served excellent dal, vada and bajji apart from the traditional bread, ijakwey. I tucked into the bread with dal and lost count of the number of crispy vadas I had.

Myanmar is opening up gradually to tourism. However, it remains challenged as far as infrastructure is concerned. It has the most basic requirement of service oriented people, but the physical infrastructure has to see huge quality inputs. It was heartening to see new bridges being built and roads being laid. However, if modern construction methods were deployed quality and speed could also be ensured. With proper infrastructure new areas could open up to showcase the historical and cultural Burma of yore.

Chinese investments in mining and tree felling have resulted in clashes and confrontation with local people. I passed by one such location on the way to Kalay, where hills were being razed and defaced for copper mining. Huge hills have been turned into mud heaps with trees wantonly felled and environment violated with gay abandon. The Letpadaung agitation, against copper mining, had been a watershed in the protest against Chinese aggrandizement. But, over the years, the agitation has watered down. It is alleged that the Myanmar ruling party and Chinese government have struck unholy alliances disregarding the rights of the local people and their livelihood.

Some days and on some stretches the drive seems endless. The destination seems further away as you near it! The drive to Kalay was one such. The more I drove the more was the distance left to be covered, I felt. One of the features in Myanmar is the absence of sign posts or distance indicators. Therefore, without a guide it could be quite a task getting through, especially because of the many diversions and temporary detours. Even navigational aids could go wonky under the circumstances.

After entering the city of Kalay I tanked up at a fuel station. Between Mandalay and Kalay the price of fuel had gone up by over 100 kyats per litre for premium diesel. I was informed a few days back that fuel stations in Manipur may be dry. Therefore, I was keen to tank up wherever possible. In Myanmar micro retail selling of fuel is common. All along the many routes plastic bottles and cans of fuel were available. With increase in vehicle population in the country fuel stations are seen as lucrative investment. I saw numerous new facilities coming up on the entire stretch from Myawaddy to Kalay.

Nearing 5 pm I finally reached the Taung Za Lat Hotel. I was not physically tired because I had taken a short nap when the others had lunch. But, I was mentally drained. At the hotel I rearranged luggage in the car and got clothes and other equipment ready to re-enter India for the final week of the expedition. Pants, t-shirts, socks, hankies, underclothes and nightwear for the next eight days were settled into the overnighter and soiled clothes and stuff that would no longer be required were packed up for their haul to destination. The final border crossing would be tomorrow at Tamu on the Myanmar side and Moreh on the Indian side.

Day 68 - 6 May 2015 - Bago to Mandalay

In Myanmar distance is referred to in miles and speed in km! Therefore, Thein told me that while it would be 360 miles to Mandalay from Bago, the speed limit on the highway would range from 80 to 100 kmph. It was decided that we would leave the hotel after breakfast, which would be served at 7 am. Accordingly, I was in the lobby of the hotel after loading the luggage and sprucing up the car in time for breakfast, where I was joined by the rest. We were met by empty trays and plates in the buffet hall. Aye and Thein fuelled some action by reporting the matter to the reception and in a while a person came to the dining hall to enquire what I wanted. I asked for toasts and eggs. In the meanwhile a family of three also arrived in the dining hall. They too were surprised that items to break their fast were not on the table. However, in 15 minutes noodles, fried rice, fried eggs, toasts, cakes and bananas filled the buffet table. Instead of coffee I had helpings of an excellent cool lime and ginger drink.

Thein wanted me to experience the old highway to Mandalay, which he felt would be more scenic and enjoyable. Besides, he said that the tarred old highway would be easier on the tyres. I went along with the idea because I had already done the new highway when travelling from Mandalay to Yangon. However, I was apprehensive about the time it would take to reach Mandalay via the old highway. Nevertheless, we started out at 7.45 am from Bago to Mandalay on the old highway. Immediately as I got on to it I knew that my apprehensions would prove right – the traffic was slow and the preponderance of heavy cargo vehicles prevented faster movement. Moreover, most of the road was a single carriageway. To top it all there were temporary road diversions due to road works in progress. I told Thein that we should get back to the new highway failing which we would remain in the road till nightfall. He too appreciated the condition and we switched to the new highway, travelling through long stretches of village roads. We got to the new highway at mile 72, which meant that there were 300 miles more to Mandalay. Thein said that that we would stop at mile 285 for lunch.

Thein kept up a lively conversation about Myanmar and that kept drooping eyelids at bay for a while. However, by 11 am I could not control sleep anymore and pulled up beyond the pavement for a power nap. 15 minutes is what I usually allot for my power nap. But this time I woke up after 3o minutes of deep sleep – I had woken up at 3 am and that had caught up. I felt miserable having kept the rest waiting. But they too appreciated that I did what I did instead of driving through with fatal consequences. The new highway is also known as the Death Highway because of the numerous accidents that happen on it, mostly owing to bus drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. Thein narrated many such instances; I suspected that he had suggested the alternate route because of the high incidence of accidents on the new highway!

After the nap I felt supercharged and Thein helped to keep the batteries recharged with a lively debate about my experiences in Myanmar. The transformation I have witnessed in Myanmar between 2003, when I was here on a backpacking trip, and 2015 is nothing short of miraculous. The order and discipline, road infrastructure, industrial and agricultural development and the growth of local entrepreneurship have been extraordinary. Seeing all this first hand I have become extremely sceptical of media propaganda, mostly western, about the country. Media reports highlight low salary levels in Myanmar. But they do not correlate that to the purchasing power of the people. Most importantly, development, however slow and gradual, has not spoilt the smiling and service oriented Myanmarese. This is so with most of the South East Asian countries. There is life and warmth in the people. Maybe, this is not true of Singapore, but service levels are very high there too.

By quarter to 2 pm we reached mile 285 and detoured to the comfort station for lunch. The Shwe Inlay Hotel served us what they had, the kitchen having been closed at the late hour. I had two helpings of yummy chicken curry and steamed rice. I walked around the many stalls in the comfort station and observed that chikkies were the most sold there. The area grows a lot of peanuts and sesame; it’s rich in production of palm sugar too. I picked up different kinds of chikkies as well as exotic tamarind balls in sugar!

Shortly after we had hit the highway after lunch Aye discovered that he had left his waist bag behind at the restaurant. It did take us a while to get back to the Shwe Inlay Hotel because of the protected highway with minimal interconnections between the two carriageways. However, we retrieved the bag and Aye tipped the smart youngsters who came running to the car with the bag as they spotted us. By this time the horizon had turned dark as night and lightning was seen embellishing the landscape.

Rain came down in buckets with gale force winds. It was a heavy storm and most vehicles pulled to the side due to poor visibility; nothing ahead could be seen. Thein suggested that we pull over too. I insisted on driving through at slow speed with hazard lights. More than 30 minutes of that and we were through it. But, it was an experience I have not had before. I could make out that my co-passengers had had their hearts in their mouths till the storm blew over. It became sunny and hot all over again and it was steaming in Mandalay when we stopped for fuelling.

Overnight stay was once again in the Mandalay Hotel. I love the lovely teak furniture in the hotel and the commodious room. After settling the luggage Aye took me to a store to buy a couple of Myanmar beers. I also picked up a bottle of Mandalay Rum, which is considered to be the best produced in Myanmar. The proof will be in the drinking! Over the beers I completed pending documentation in the room. I wanted to hit the sack early because of the 5 am departure planned to Kalay next morning. Aye and I went to a Chinese restaurant where I had a plate of fried rice and the most gorgeous mangoes for dessert. Over dinner Aye reminded me that we had met before in Yangon. I had completely forgotten that he was working in Silver Hills and had met him in the company of Myo Min. He told me that he had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for ten years and had resigned to join the tour company. The motivation to resign was the poor salary he got in the government job. I was shocked by his declaration that he a monthly salary of 950 kyats (less than USD1) when he joined service, which rose to USD 25 by the time he put in his papers. He gets more than 10 times that in the private sector job he is in now. Additionally, during his spare time, after office, he drives a taxi. His is a double income family and that has made it comfortable for them, with a little set apart for the rainy day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Day 67 - 5 May 2015 - Myawaddy to Bago

Till I crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Moei River to Myanmar I had been on a knife’s edge, so to say. Despite my best intentions and effort I had not been able to obtain vehicle insurance during the expedition except in Singapore, where it cost me an arm and a leg, and in Myanmar, where it was part of the tour agency’s responsibility. I tried to obtain insurance at the borders of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Either the insurance companies refused to insure a foreign registered car or they did not deal with vehicle insurance at all. It is very strange that medical insurance is issued in India for global coverage whereas the same is not done for a vehicle. When I travelled to London from India I was able to obtain vehicle insurance at the borders for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Navo Tours, who coordinated the China leg of the journey, took responsibility for the insurance as well. At the Finnish border I got insurance for Schengen States as well as UK, for a princely sum. Thus, I had no anxieties at that time about any untoward involving the car. However, during the South East Asian expedition I was extremely guarded and nervous since the car was not covered by an insurance. Any mishap could have been financially disastrous and morally indefensible.

Thein was a refreshing change from Tun Tun as a guide. It was possible to communicate easily with him and his knowledge made it possible to glean nuggets of valuable and interesting information. Moreover, he had conducted biking trips before and that made up his understanding of what such tourists looked for. The Myawaddy of today is a far cry from what it was just 30 months ago, he said. It was not possible to conduct business normally and tourism was not feasible due to the tense conditions prevailing there then. While the central parts of Myanmar were firmly under the control of the central administration the northern and southern states were yet to come within complete control. Local armies and certain lumpen elements still held sway. Local taxes and tolls were levied by the people of the place that were not within the ambit of legal administration. He said that even for my drive special permissions had to be taken, he did not elaborate, and people in high places had to be informed.

The roads were incredibly awful then, and even bikers walked rather than rode from Myawaddy through the Daw Na Tuang. The poor condition of the road that we experienced today, he said, was a thousand times better than what was a couple of years ago. Thailand had invested on the roads leading up to its border on the Myanmar side with purely commercial interests governing the altruistic deed. Myanmar is almost totally dependent on China and Thailand for its consumption and trading needs. Building a good road network was deemed by Thailand as a sine qua non to foster and develop trade relations with its developing neighbour. The road from Myawaddy almost up to the approach of Daw Na Tuang has been done up very well. I was told that an alternate road from Kaw Ke Rek to Myawaddy was getting ready to be operationalised by July this year; this will considerably cut down travel time and obviate the need to regulate uphill and downhill traffic to alternate days. Logistics costs will reduce substantially.

Goods brought in from Thailand are pooled in Mandalay and distributed all over the country. With such long leads the importance of better road conditions from the Thai border to Mandalay cannot be over emphasised. Myawaddy is prone to floods since there had been wanton afforestation in the area in the past few years. Therefore, the trading post and warehouses that exchanged goods with Thailand was located on a hill to avoid damages in case of floods.

Foregoing breakfast at the hotel we started for Bago from Myawaddy just after 6 am. My hunch had been right. Traffic had not yet picked up, even though we had many freight carriers to pass on the way. Road repair works were about to start when we exited the base of the mountain pass. In slightly over two hours we had completed the most difficult part of the day’s journey and my decision to start early was vindicated. Just as the tough portion of the drive was over hunger pangs surfaced. Thein located a decent tea house in Kaw Ke Rek and we stopped for breakfast. I was not inclined to have fried rice or paratta. Instead I asked for ijackwey, a sweet bread, which is normally dipped in tea and had as a snack. The tea house owner spoke to me in Hindi when he was told by Thein that I come from India. He said he had many friends from India and loved Bollywood movies, which explained his decent knowledge of Hindi. He gave me a bowl of boiled chick peas with onions and oil to have with the ijackwey. It was quite tasty and I asked for another bowl of the peas. In the meanwhile he brought crispy nans and asked me to try one. The hot and dry nan was excellent with the peas. The milk tea was very sweet because they use condensed milk.

Once the bumpy road was over the drive was quite enjoyable. Thein kept on explaining various facets of life in Myanmar and his penchant for Amartya Sen, Three Idiots and Glass Palace surfaced regularly. Of particular interest was the ‘Kayin Fault’ between the states of Mon and Bago separated by the Satting River. On the Mon side it is mountainous and the soil is laterite. Rubber plantation is the main agricultural occupation; rubber produced here is considered to be the best in the country. Besides, Mon produces the best Myanmarese Durian, jackfruit and mangosteen. Across the river the landscape dramatically; it is absolutely flat with sandy soil. Therefore, peas, beans and other vegetables are the main agricultural produce.

When we left Kaw Ke Rek at 8.45 am Thein had said that we would stop for lunch at 12.30 pm at a restaurant that was popular with Myanmarese and foreign tourists. My driving fitted Thein’s calculation perfectly and we reached the eatery on schedule, but found it very busy. Thein said that the restaurant served Myanmarese style food and hence, the crowd. Moreover, they did not serve pork and beef; many Buddhists avoid eating four legged animals – I remembered Tun Tun telling me about it. I ordered steamed rice and fish curry, while the others went in for standard meals. The curry was quite good but the fish seemed to have been caught only because it was too heavy to move! Once the fat was removed there was little else to have with the rice.

As I was getting ready for the final stretch of 75 km to Bago after lunch I observed an elderly British couple evincing interest in the details of the expedition mentioned on the car. They were accompanied by an Indian-looking lady. After I had explained the expeditions he told me that he had travelled from London to India in 1973 via Afghanistan and Pakistan! It was a humbling experience. Meeting such people help keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.

We reached the Shwewartun Hotel at 3 pm. The property on which the hotel is located is very large, but it looked as if it had seen better times. The room was quite large but the air conditioning was dysfunctional. I requested for a change of room and got it. The main problem in Myanmar is poor internet connectivity. I was unable to connect to the net even once till 6 pm. I went down to the reception and they claimed that the signal strength was okay. Knowing that I would not be able to get any further I walked down the road of the hotel and came across a small restaurant. I went in and asked for a chilled bottle of Myanmar Beer. Half the bottle went down as quickly as it was in the beer mug; it was extremely hot and humid. I stayed on for another. The restaurant was doing brisk business with the owner himself attending to most customers. He wore a t-shirt that had the message “Work For Successful Living”. It not only exemplified the hard work he was putting at the restaurant, but stood for the amazing entrepreneurship in all the South East Asian countries I visited during the expedition. He had a couple of young women moving around the tables serving beer and liquor; the latter was not that popular. Many small boys and girls helped out in the restaurant taking orders, bring orders from the kitchen, handing over receipts and collecting money. They went about their tasks in a well trained manner. Three young girls constantly hovered around me, smiling disarmingly and serving me peanuts with the beer. I asked myself if this was a connection from another life!

Thein took me to the Hathwaddy restaurant for dinner. Though a bit pricey the first floor sitting of the restaurant offered fantastic view of the illuminated pagoda which is considered the tallest in Myanmar. The Shwemawdaw pagoda is reputed to have been built 1000 years ago by two merchants who also enshrined a few relics of the Buddha. The pagoda that was affected by few earthquakes was gradually raised from 23 metres to its present 114 metres over a period of many centuries.