The sense of achievement of having done a solo Trans Himalayan Expedition, which turned out to be the toughest I have done in the past 5 years of road expeditions, recedes into the background when I acknowledge that this would not have been possible, in the manner it was done despite the stiff odds, without the spontaneous support, encouragement, hospitality, motivational pats on the shoulder and, most importantly, prayers of so many over social media and in person. It is from the bottom of my heart that I thank all of you sincerely. This expedition saw me negotiate five accidents, three incidents where I could have lost my life and an occasion when my car was vandalised and I lost more than Rs 1 lakh worth of equipment. Almost a similar amount will be required to bring the Champion back to her old self, after suffering almost fatal battle wounds. Through it all you never permitted my spirit and passion to flag or even think of quitting the expedition. It was always forward and yet more ahead. Record Drive had achieved the distinction of completing it's eighth expedition successfully and is on track to register the twelfth Limca Record. My humble greetings and pranams to all of you, personally, for being with me all the way.
Monday, April 11, 2016
On reaching Cochin I dropped in at the Trans Asian Shipping corporate office - the management led by Johnson Mathew has been a source of tremendous support and motivation over the past 18 months. I spent some time with colleagues detailing the expedition and the challenges faced.
Thereafter I reached home to a warm welcome by my cousin, Abe and dear friend, Mathew Philip.
Thereafter I reached home to a warm welcome by my cousin, Abe and dear friend, Mathew Philip.
A night halt in Visakhapatnam has been a regular feature of my expeditions since 2010 when I set out in the All India solo drive. The hosts have always been the ever pleasant Thulasiram Nair and his gracious wife, Nandini. This time too it was no different. I took leave of them after countless cups of tea and delectable dosas with chutneys and 'gun powder'.
The 845 km drive, longest till date on this expedition, was smoothly negotiated. The segment between Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada needs attention. The second segment to Chennai was very good. Just short of Eluru met Biju Jose, a Facebook friend and a senior member of the HVK Forum, and his companions who are on a tour of Sikkim. I reached Chennai in time for a good night's sleep. A business friend of mine had arranged accommodation at the Taj Vivanta. The accommodation was top class and the food delectable.
I didn’t have much time to sleep but what I got was quality sleep. I was ready to leave at the break of dawn despite going to sleep an hour after midnight. Since the restaurant was open I thought of having breakfast before starting off. After loading the luggage into the car I ordered a paratha, thinking that that would be available in quick time. As it transpired, the restaurant staff kept telling me that it is getting done fresh and the fresh paratha arrived 30 minutes later when I was almost on the verge of flying off the handle. The portion was hot, oily and so large that it took me more than normal time to get to the end of it. It was tatsy indeed!
It took me slightly more than two hours to motor the 180 km from Kolaghat to Balasore. The road was excellent and that was a surprise to me. I was apprehensive about this stretch because I had found it in the most awful condition in May when I was returning from the South East Asian Expedition. Just after passing the town I saw a long queue of vehicles stuck on a straight stretch of the NH45. It could be an accident, I thought, and overtook the trucks and moved along the empty lane and realised that traffic had stopped on both sides of the road. When I reached the head of the queue I realised that the situation was more serious than what I had thought. It was an agitation by villagers who were protesting for a right of way through the structure that had divided their cropping lands. The newly built NH had divided homes and farm property and many lives had been lost on that stretch when attempting to cross from one side to the other on the surface. The demand of the locals definitely seemed justified and many of the youngsters told me that they had agitated three times before blocking the NH and every time the district administration had agreed to get the matter resolved. Months having passed with casualties going up they were in no mood to relent this time. They alleged that the district administration was in cahoots with the NHAI and delaying the execution of the underpass. They insisted that the Collector should come to the site and give a personal assurance. In a short while a posse of policemen arrived. I tried to reason with some of the leaders that I had an appointment to keep in Visakhapatnam. They coolly told me to inform those who were
waiting for me that I would be late! I asked the policemen if they could help me. They told me to reason with the agitators. The number of agitators swelled by the minute. Tarpaulins were spread on the road and men, women and children were all raising slogans. Videos and stills were being shot for news channels and newspapers. That made the agitators’ resolve stronger. Even two wheelers were not permitted to go through. Only vehicles with sick people were allowed to go through. Hooliganism also started to rear its ugly head. After four hours of agonising wait I left the agitation spot after the agitators were mollified and they were sure that their mugs would be on TV later that day!
After the vexatious journey yesterday it was a carpet beauty most of the way between Kolaghat and Visakhapatnam, 820 km. The scenic brilliance and the enjoyable driving experience was only rudely interlaced by an agitation of villagers near Balasore that was just described and an impassable queue of trucks at Ichchapuram, the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border.
The evening belonged to Thulasiram Nair and his Kerala Kala Samithi friends who accorded a grand reception, the warmth and welcome of which will linger for very long.
In sheer desperation as the driving day was prolonging with no hope of reaching Kolkata I wanted to find out alternatives. I was well and truly at my wits end. I reached out to Thulasiram in Visakhapatnam, who connected me to his friend who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. He expertly guided me through the main roads and state roads till I hit the National Highway 2. His expertise stemmed from his professional engagements – he works with the Excise department. He suggested that it would be better if I halted in Kolaghat and suggested a small hotel too. Well past midnight I mercifully reached the Sher-e-Punjab at Kolaghat. An ordeal of over 20 hours had come to an end. Imagine 20 stressful hours behind the wheel to cover 650 km with hardly any rest in between.
The room at the Sher-e-Punjab was basic but worth the price. The restaurant attached to the hotel was doing brisk business even past the midnight hour. After ensuring that the car is parked safely I had a small snack and hit the sack.
Fully rested and in fine mental shape I left Maligaon before 6am. Just after the Maligaon town I took the Saraighat Bridge and set course for Bongaigaon and Alipurduar. The drive was fairly smooth except a portion before Nalbari, which was in bad shape. I reached the Officers' Rest House in New Jalpaiguri before 3pm despite a diversion for a broken wooden bridge. The 435 km drive was largely pleasant with topography and scenery resembling Kerala.
I had enough and more time to settle in and rearrange the luggage. The ORH was being painted. There were many high officials supervising the makeover. Many of them wanted to know the significance of the expedition. When told the details they were in total awe. And they were proud that it was one of their kin, a railwayman, who had accomplished it. I had many cups of tea while updating information over the social media sites. I had also a lot of comments to reply to on the sites. While completing the documentation over a meal of hot rotis, sabji and omelette I realised that I had driven over 10500 km in the past 29 days.
This part of the country of valleys and rivers are home to the Mishmi tribes that have customs and traditions dating back to the days of the Mahabharata. It is said that Lord Krishna’s wife, Rukmini, was from the Mishmi tribe! The legend of Parashuram and creation of Kerala are all part of the folklore from Parshuram Kund. Pilgrims from all over the country and neighboring countries come to the Kund to wash away sins of many births, as Parashuram did after slaying his mother and brothers.
Rajesh, as is his wont, had made arrangements with the ferry to take me across the River Brahmaputra. He came to the Circuit House just as I was done with loading the luggage. It was a brilliant sunrise that greeted us at the ferry point. Two other cars joined mine on the deck of the ramshackle water transport. I suspect it had not seen many better days! When I bid adieu to Rajesh he mentioned that the bridge would be ready by the time I would make my next trip to Tezu. The road to Tezu from the Assam border had indeed improved considerably since my visit there in 2013. Developmental works are happening, but they need to benefit the local people instead of lining the pockets of a few.
The roads in Assam too have improved by leaps and bounds. I was worried that the road near Kaziranga would be in bad condition because of the recent floods in which the National Park was severely affected. While the road per se was not that affected cattle and makeshift homes were everywhere. They were the most affected ones. Water was yet to recede in many places and people were finding it difficult to eke out a living. Cattle roamed the roads as their grazing lands had been taken over by flood waters. People lived in small huts made of straw and wood beside the road since their dwellings were still under water. They were poignant scenes, but the smiles on the faces of kids as they played with traditional toys reinforced the thought that better days awaited them, and soon.
So this would be it. I had begun the last day of the Trans Himalayan Expedition that would take me from Itanagar to Tezu. The original route via Pasighat and Roing to Tezu was closed due to flooding and I had to divert, yet again, via Dhemaji, Bogibeel ghat and Dibrugarh. The Bogibeel ghat crossing took more than an hour. A massive rail cum road bridge is under construction over the River Brahmaputra at Bogibeel. I wondered what that would do to the local enterprise that had been built on ferry crossings. Besides the ferries there were small eateries that served tea and snacks and rice and fish curry even at 11 am. A large contingent of the army was also on its way across the river and separate ferries had been arranged for them.
I was pleasantly surprised to experience better roads on the Arunachal side after Dibrugarh. When I had done this stretch in 2013 it had been agonizing. In a few months, I was informed ferry crossing across the River Brahmaputra may be a thing of the past as a new bridge is under construction. Rajesh of Arunachal Pradesh police had organized my ferry crossing. When I reached the ferry point I was met by the hap in charge who positioned the car properly for the next crossing. In a short while two army vehicles came to the jetty and wanted to jump the queue. This was stubbornly refused by the ferry in charge
and the local people who were already in the queue! By 5 pm I was on the ferry doing the crossing to Tezu. The destination of the expedition was just a few minutes away. It was ecstasy crossing the ferry to Tezu at 5 pm and I could not contain the unbounded joy. Accidents, vandalism, disappointments, delays and all of this I encountered in the expedition. And now, I was near the end point of the expedition. Such moments are indescribably joyous.
Rajesh of Arunachal Pradesh police was on hand to receive me at the ferry point and lodge me in the Circuit House. By 6.15 pm I was in Tezu and the expedition had been completed. The final leg of the expedition of 418 km was completed in 14 hours! Rajesh organised a meeting with the Malayalee diaspora in Tezu in the Circuit House. I got the log sheet attested by the senior among those who had come. What an expedition it had been. Without a doubt it was the most challenging I had done so far. There were times when the thought of giving up crossed my mind, especially after the accident in Srinagar. But thanks to the support of friends and well wishers who egged me on I was able to complete a most arduous solo drive that would test the best.
Later Rajesh took me to the residence of the Superintendent of Police, Ved Prakash Surya. I spent some time with the family discussing eth adventure and life in Tezu. Thereafter, Rajesh virtually dragged me to the residence of the MLA Dr Chai. I was quite tired by then and my thought was purely on getting into bed for the night. We had to wait for quite a while before the youthful Dr Chai, a medical doctor by profession, came in after a rigorous session of badminton. A very humble and down to earth, it was interesting to understand local politics and gather people’s aspirations from him. Before I left the couple Mrs and Dr Chai presented me with traditional handicrafts.
An expedition that had posed many challenges saw spontaneous outpourings of positive and prayerful sentiments. The original schedule was overshot by over two and half days. It finally came to an end after 18 days and 14 hours which saw the Champion log over 5800 km. The terrain was the toughest I have been on compared to all the previous ones in the past 5 years.
‘While tourism may be important as a revenue earner, Bhutan sees no gain in succumbing to over commercialism. It recognizes that a small country emerging from isolation must do so in its own time and at its own pace. The Tourism council of Bhutan is clear that its policy of high value, low volume is the right policy because Bhutan is just too small for mass tourism. And as the world begins to discover the Land of the Thunder Dragon, many go away with a sense of having been in a special place, far from the insanity of modern living. Here is a land where life may not be materially luxurious but it provides much that is good for a society that is not yet caught up with the global rat race'
What I experienced in Bhutan is just what the Tourism council prescribed. Crass commercialism leading to degradation of the environment and corruption of local cultures normally accompany unfettered tourism. Many countries see tourism as a low hanging fruit to bring in extra revenues. By the time the mixed blessing that tourism is is discovered it would be too late to reverse the damages done.
I left the lodge early hoping to cover as much of the distance before the traffic picked up. Also, I had to traverse many so-called ‘sensitive areas’ to get to Itanagar later in the day. I reached the Indo-Bhutan border and had to wait for the gate to open at 5.30 am, Bhutan time. The friendly guards mentioned that they would talk to their Indian counterparts to see if the gate could be opened earlier. Their hands were forced by a few high ranking officials who reached the gate fifteen minutes before official gate opening time. A flurry of activity followed and the gates were opened without much fanfare. I drove into west Bengal, India and immediately experienced the Indianness. Garbage, stinks, pollution, undisciplined road use, et al! However, my mind was set on reaching Tezu the next day.
I was diverted by paramilitary force to route via Rangia instead of Udalguri. Yet another deviation from the route set by Limca Book of Records. Even then it was not over. Three districts of Assam were affected by bandh. Local police accompanied traffic in a convoy to avoid miscreant activity and the route was changed via Tezpur, Gohpur and Hollangi to Itanagar. The road condition between Hollangi and Itanagar made the Bhutan roads look mild in comparison. Two young friends on a motorbike intercepted me en route to Rangia to get details of the trip.
My accommodation was pre-arranged in the Itanagar State Guest House in Naharlagun that used to be the residence of the Governor of the State many years ago. To reach the guest house I traversed the entire town that had become chaotic due to poorly managed infrastructure works and vehicle population. I stopped at a small intercession to enquire about the location of the guest house. As luck would have it, the person hailed from Kerala and he was on his way to his residence not far from the guest house! Amidst conversation about life in Arunachal Pradesh he conducted me to the historic
building, next door to which is the High Court. In the past, the High Court used to be the Chief Minister's residence. The drive on the eighteenth day of the expedition had concluded in Itanagar after 380 km in 10 hours.