Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Day 11 – 23 May Muse to Dali

I had completely rearranged the bags yesterday in such a way that I had all the clothes and accessories that I wanted in China in one bag. I quietly acknowledged that I would have to do laundry in Beijing. By 6 am I rang up the reception for a bellboy to take my luggage to the car. In a short while Htoo rang me up to ask what it is that I wanted from the reception! I was all set in the next 15 minutes and waited for the others to join for breakfast. Before breakfast we exchanged presents. Pyae and Htoo, on behalf of Silver Hills, gave me a huge wall hanging with semi-precious stones depicting the life in Myanmar. In turn, I presented them with copies of my books and mugs of the London drive.

I limited my helpings to eggs and toast with fruit juice and mangoes. Htoo, Hnin and Pyae had a large bowl of soupy noodles and meat. Finally, by 7.30 am we were ready to leave from the hotel. The first stop was the Customs office. Sadly we found the office locked. Htoo walked around and found one of the houses in the compound open. He explained his requirement and was promptly asked inside while we despaired outside knowing that the office would open only by 9,30! Htoo came out of the house with a huge smile, his signature, for he got the officer to complete the Carnet and the rest of the formalities from home! The next stop was in the Land Transport Office. We had to go to two offices before the temporary license plate could be deposited. At a quarter past eight we were at the Myanmar Immigration. The officer who we had met the previous evening explained the procedure for moving the car to China and opened the ‘Middle Gate’ for the same.

While the formalities of Myanmar Immigration was on I got in touch with Andy, the Chinese guide who was waiting for me on the China side. When I moved the car to the Middle Gate he waved at me across the border. I walked to the Chinese Immigration and was met by a friendly officer who helped with the arrival card and the immigration process. I met up with Andy there. It took just a quarter of an hour and I was ready to drive the car into China. It was tough taking leave of the three with who I had become very friendly over the past five days during the drive in Myanmar. Hnin had even taken a day pass and gone across to the Chinese side to take video of the car rolling into China.

The car was cursorily examined and allowed to go beyond the border. Immediately as I passed into China an hour and half was added to the time with China time at +8 GMT as against Myanmar at +6.30 GMT! There were a few more formalities to be completed before we left the Chinese border town of Ruili. While I expected that most of the work would have been done in advance Andy told me that he could not do them because of the intervening holidays. Thus, we had to get car insurance at the PICC office, temporary number plate and driving license at the Traffic Police and Customs gate in at their office. While I had hoped to start the drive to Dali, the destination for the day, at noon we were far from that. By the time we were ready to leave Ruili it was after 4.30 pm. We had to wait for the Traffic Police officials to return from lunch, which was between noon and 2.30 pm.

Instead of whiling away time Andy took me to the Bank of China to exchange currency. He estimated that we may require about 9000 RMB for tolls, accommodation, food and fuel for the ten days in China. At the bank Andy was told that I would need to open a bank account to exchange more than $500. I settled to exchange that amount initially. We drove back to the Traffic Police office and had lunch at a restaurant bang opposite it. The Wifi connection in the restaurant was so good that I could, later, operate WhatsApp sitting in my car! Andy ordered a fried egg with tomatoes, pork with mushroom and a tofu soup. The large helpings were definitely too much for the two of us. The food was incredibly tasty, though. The restaurant also had an array of locally made wines in large jars.

It did take us a while to get the number plate and license from the Traffic Police, but it was done in the end. The movement through Customs was efficiently facilitated by a liaison guy. It was closer to 5 pm and we had a drive of 415 km to Dali ahead of us. I insisted that we do it even though it would be late by the time we got to Dali. That would help me to stay on course in the itinerary. One reason why I was confident is because of the infrastructure of roads. What I saw in the city of Ruili amazed me. The wide, clean and efficiently marked roads with unambiguous signages was a revelation. And when we hit the freeway G56 I was sure that I had taken the right decision. At the entrance to the freeway, at a toll booth, we were given a card that mentioned our entry point to the freeway. Wherever we exited the freeway we would have to pay toll calculating the distance travelled on the freeway. There would be no intermediate toll booths.

The G56 was a beauty with large four lane tunnels often over 4 km, bridges spanning 5 km, verdant forests, thick fog, moderate to heavy rain and top class road surfacing and markings. Add to that the unbelievable road discipline and you have the ride of your dreams. It was the right time to use cruise control and I made use of that liberally till the fog set in. The freeway has excellent restroom facilities at intermediate locations.

With just two bio stoppages we reached Dali by 10 pm. Andy had booked us into Jade Emu, the budget accommodation run by an Aussie and his Chinese wife. The reason for choosing that accommodation was, apart from the price, that it was the only place in China where one could access Facebook, YTube and Gmail! These and social media sites like Twitter were a no go in China. I was prepared for this, but what I was not prepared for was that the same ban would apply in Muse, the border town of Myanmar. The hotel staff explained that the Wifi connection was from a Chinese company and hence, the bans in that country were applicable in Muse too! I was inconsolable because I could not inform my Facebook friends that I would not be able to post updates about the drive for the next days. However, the stay in Jade Emu would remedy that.

As soon as I checked into the ‘family room’, a free upgrade, I got active on the excellent Wifi connectivity and updated posts on Facebook and the blog site. With this post I will be ‘silent’ till I reach Vladivostok on 2 June. During the interim I will be travelling via Chengdu and Beijing to get to the border town of Hunchun on 1 June.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Day 10 – 22 May Lashio to Muse

Over dinner we had agreed to leave from Lashio after 9 am since the drive to Muse would take just about three hours and the hotel check in would be only after noon. That gave me enough time to complete all my chores and be at the breakfast table at 7 am, again as decided last night. However, I didn’t find the others there. The young man who waited at the table set my portion which consisted of fried rice and a sunny side up egg on top of that, soup, n watermelon, cake and coffee. I noticed that a portion of fried rice and egg were placed in front of the Buddha image that was placed in the dining hall. Later, Htoo told me that it is customary for a portion of the cooked meal to be first placed before the Buddha image in every home. After a while a member of the family may consume that portion.

Lashio has been colder than the other places that I had been in Myanmar this time. The coconut oil also froze up. The water was quite cold too and hence, it was natural to look forward to a hot water bath. The taps, however, refused to yield anything close to what could be termed hot. I spoke to the girl at the reception and immediately a boy appeared at the door. He toyed with the taps for a while and came back after some time with another guy. After some time he declared that one of the taps yielded warm water. To me it was just cold and colder water. I knocked at Htoo’s door to find out if he had a similar problem. He said that he had hot water in the tap and I went into the bathroom to inspect. Then I realized the definition of what is warm water. The less cold of the two streams ‘should’ be deemed to be ‘warm’!

The departure was an hour later than we had planned; actually we were not in a hurry at all. Before the leisurely departure I requested Htoo to direct Hnin and Pyae to affix the sticker against Lashio, signifying that the journey through Myanmar was coming to an end. We pulled out of the parking lot of the hotel that was right in front of the Lashio University and a prominent pagoda in the town. Htoo told me that he had been penalized $15 for losing the key to his room!

“… He will keep you safe from all hidden dangers and from all deadly diseases. He will cover you with his wings, you will be safe in his care..” So it says in Psalm 91. Many years ago an aunt got me into the habit of reading this Psalm before I leave for my daily work. I carry the Bible with me and read this portion before setting out on the day’s journey. And I experience the protection at every step of the way. What more proof is required that HE watches over you than the news that Htoo broke in the car that a storm had ravaged Kale the day after we had left from there on 20 May. The photos were of landslides and road blocks that held up traffic all along the way. The storm was moving behind us by a day and was expected to strike Mandalay this day!

The three who accompanied me on the journey from Tamu to Muse have been very good company. I discovered that their combined ages was 85, the reversal of digits of my age. What a coincidence. Htoo is an ever smiling, cheerful and gifted guide. The 23 year old has been freelancing as a guide for the past two years. The nuggets of information that he supplied helped me understand the country and its people better than the previous two driving visits to Myanmar. When I posted his photos on Facebook friends who had travelled with him in Myanmar made welcome comments about him and now I understand why. Hnin has been with the government for the past nine years. She is interested in trekking and mountaineering and is a member of that society too. She quietly goes about her work without any fuss and contributes with her ready smile and good cheer. Pyae had been in Kokata for over four years helping her sister out in her business. Bollywood madness consumed her since then. The first day of the trip she asked if I had Hindi songs, which I had. She was very clear that she did nt want to listen to old songs and most of my collection was just that. But I had a few of the recent ones too. As the first beat played she would say which song that was and start singing along! She is head over heels with Salman Khan who she thinks is the ultimate human. She also believes that if she slims a bit she will look like Deepika Padukone and wants to be her in her next life. Htoo told me that Pyae believed that if you cannot be a star in this life you should be a star in the sky!

At the entrance to Muse we found a large fuel station and turned in to tank up. It tuned out that the owner is Chinese and the fuel station had many promos to attract customers. They were handing out fruit juice and free water. Later we realized that there were so many fuel stations along the way because of the large freight trucks that plied from and to the border town. Many had parking and resting places prominently advertised.

It was 2.30 pm before we reached the Sien Yadanar Hotel and checked in. I was given a large room, the air conditioning of which I later found was dysfunctional. I requested for a change and I got one. On either sides of lunch I reorganized the entire luggage and got ready for the ten day drive through China. I also called up Andy, the guide allotted to me by Navo Tours, and arranged to meet up at the Chinese Gate at 9.30 am, Beijing time which is an hour and a half ahead of Myanmar time! Andy was indeed surprised to know that there was a change in the time zones of the two countries.

Htoo came over at 4 pm to say that the Immigration officials would like to meet us in advance to go through the papers. I accompanied Hnin and Htoo to the Immigration office and presented the papers before a friendly official who went through the papers and said that all were in order. From that office I got a good look at the Chinese border post I would have to cross tomorrow. From that vantage point the country across the border looked like one flowing with milk and honey, for the infrastructure looked top class!

The Champion had taken a lot of dirt roads and was in urgent need of a thorough cleaning. Fortunately, there was a service station just by the side of the hotel and I left the car there with instruction of what had to be done. When Htoo and I returned from the Immigration office the car was ready to be collected. The service station had done an excellent job for the equivalent of about Rs 225.

Later in the evening Htoo and I took a tuk tuk to the market. I was amazed at the wide display of all things Chinese. There is even a super market that sold only Chinese articles and food and payment had to be made in RMB! China has unobtrusively become the major trading partner of Myanmar. They came in at a time when the Western powers had imposed an embargo on trading with Myanmar. China never asked Myanmar to pay up for the help in building the country; they asked for mining rights and more projects. Htoo told me the story of how the Chinese business offered to buy back oxen for tractors. Myanmarese farmers were happy for the exchange. Later they realized that they had to reach out to the same business interests for inorganic fertilizer as they did not have cattle for organic fertilizer. The servicing and maintenance of the farm equipment further wedded their interests to Chinese business. An example of how the Chinese think long term sacrificing business investments in the short term!

Htoo and I had dinner at the White House, a popular restaurant. Htoo told me that he had read somewhere that there was a huge public toilet complex in China of the same name! We had quail, quail eggs, chicken wings and grilled fish for dinner. And naturally, a bottle of Myanmar beer too.

Ten days of the expedition were over - a quarter of the expedition in terms of days was done. I look

forward to the next ten days in China.

Day 9 – 21 May Monywa to Lashio

It had been Achachan’s plan, in the first place, to take a Xmas break in Madras, the present day Chennai. This was in the mid-60s and I remember being so proud of it because none of my classmates had been to the metro city. To top it all, the trip would be by car, a relative luxury in those days. Those trips served to reinforce many values, build extracurricular skills and understand how to plan such out of the ordinary trips. Most importantly, they were opportunities to observe and study from Achachan and Ammachi. Both of them ‘ran their races’ better than they were expected to and left for distant shores in 2006 and 2001 respectively. Today is the tenth anniversary of Achachan being called to HIS side. I join Geetha and Satheesh, my siblings, and our families in specially praying for his soul and keeping him close to our hearts.

During the trip to London I had entered China through Nepal. This time it is different because the Nepal route is still closed since the earthquake in April 2015. Moreover, the political turmoil in Nepal has also lent its hand in choosing an alternative, which is via Myanmar. Thus, Nepal’s loss has been Myanmar’s gain. I decided to retain Silver Hills as the tour agency to organize clearances and detail the Myanmar part of the Trans-Siberian Expedition. They told me that the toughest leg of the four day transit through Myanmar would be Monywa to Lashio. They kept sending me horrendous news reports of blocks, delays and accidents on that route. Finally, I decided to factor in another day in Myanmar, just to cater to the unexpected.

Despite the tough time we had yesterday I was more than apprehensive today. The schedules in China and Russia depended crucially on my getting to the Chinese border on 23 May. The matter weighed so much on my mind that I could not have the heavy breakfast that I normally have. I picked on two pieces of ‘nan’ with boiled channa and an egg. Htoo told me that the distance to Lashio is 400 km and would take about 10 hours without any untoward delays and a decent lunch break. Despite all the butterflies in the stomach, that is what happened. We left at 7 am from Hotel Monywa, which is on the banks of the Chindwin River, a tributary of the Irrawaddy River, and parked the car in front of the New Palace Hotel in Lashio at exactly 5 pm, with a one hour break for lunch.

The route from Monywa bypassed Mandalay, after 115 km. It was a wonderful experience going over the old bridge across the Irrawaddy River in Sagaing. The beautiful jade pagoda, the first in the world, is a masterpiece in Amarapura, the ancient capital city. The place was crowded because of pilgrims that thronged the place of worship on full moon day. Apparently the classic pagoda was a gift from a businessman who donated his entire collection of jade to build it.

Pyin Oo Lwin is almost exactly midpoint between Monywa and Lashio and was reached in slightly over 4 hours. Htoo planned to break at the December restaurant, just beyond the city, for lunch. Pyin Oo Lwin is variously referred to as ‘City of England’, ‘Hill Stair’, May Myo and ‘City of Flowers’. Lunching in the excellent surroundings of the December restaurant I thought that the references were entirely appropriate. At over 3500 feet the city has a climate different from where we had come from. It was cooler and the air smelt fresh and unpolluted. The city is famous for its strawberries and wine. It is said that when ‘Burma’ was a colony of the ‘British Empire’ children born in Pyin Oo Lwin were given birth certificates as if they were born in England! It is not difficult to understand why the place is referred to as ‘City of England’. The restaurant served all types of diners. There were separate restaurants for al a carte and buffet, people could sit inside the restaurant or sit out in the sun. Htoo and I opted for the buffet in the open while Hnin and Pyae went for the al a carte. The buffet was a very large spread and I delighted in tasting almost all the dishes - rice with green tea leaves, rice with soyabean, fried vermicelli, oily pork, sweet and sour chicken and fish, a wide variety of vegetables, four different soups and juices, salads and an array of desserts. I tucked into the fare with gusto despite the fact that the toughest part of the journey, the ghat roads, were ahead of us.

The ghat roads began just after Pyin Oo Lwin. The hairpin bends and sharp curves were challenging. But what made the experience most enjoyable were the condition of the roads and road discipline. Very heavy freight trucks moved on the ghat roads that looped in rings around the mountains. Slight indiscretion or disorderliness will bring traffic to a grinding halt on these roads. More often than not, it is breakdown of trucks that creates problems. During the drive I noticed that the trucks that took the ghat roads were in extremely good condition and most of them were articulated trailers that easily negotiated the hairpin bends and sharp curves. Once the loops were done we took time off at a view point to take pictures of the roads that snaked across the hills.

Another highlight of the drive through the winding ghat roads is the Gok Teik railway bridge that looked so far above the ground that it almost touched the sky. The nearly 700 metre long, 250 metre high viaduct spans two mountains bridges along the route from Mandalay to Lashio. The colonial construction that began in April 1899 and commissioned on New Years day in 1900 is a man made marvel of stupendous proportion. 

During the course of the drive we passed through Kyauk Mae, which recently had been in the news for heavy gunfight between rebels and government forces. Apparently, even choppers had been deployed from Mandalay to bomb the hideouts! At one of the toll booths Htoo enquired if all was quiet in the said town. It was and we moved through it without any hitch. Thereafter the drive to Lashio was a breeze. During the course of the past three days we had moved from the Chin state (Kale) to the Shan state (Lashio) through a few divisions of the state. The landscape does change a lot. The red earth of Shan state is a feature that helps it to grow fruits and vegetables in plenty. The Chin state has 45 percent Christian population!

Htoo ordered dinner that consisted of rice, fried vermicelli, two vegetable dishes, fried chicken and dried chilly chicken. The last named was absolutely glorious with the rice and the vermicelli. Before turning in for the night the hotel staff exchanged USD for local currency. And as was usual, the internet connectivity remained far too slow for comfort.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Day 8 – 20 May Kale to Monywa

The Taung Za Lat Hotel is bang opposite the Kale airfield, which operates ATRs and choppers. I have stayed at the hotel twice during the South East Asian Expedition. Both the times they had given me their premier room and this time too it was no different. It is a comfortable room with a private bath. But the hotel is entirely run on diesel genset, all 24 hours. I do not know how they manage. The constant whirr of the genset can be quite a nuisance at times. However, I was happy that the Wifi worked slightly better early in the morning for me do some uploads. I could not complete what I wanted to, but I was at least half way through. Nevertheless, I had had enough time since last evening to complete all the documentation, including the blog. That was a matter of great relief.

Breakfast was to be served at 7 am and Htoo promptly came over for a shout. The buffet had been laid out, mostly with local fare. Htoo and Hnin explained what they all were. The major item seemed to be a large portion of rice noodle, made out like the idiyappam, which was to be had with fish soup. I was more than apprehensive about the fish soup that had banana stem, pounded bean dumpling and other vegetables. Sworn to trying out local delicacies I ‘braved’ to move the portion to my table. I told my self that toast and jam and some bajjis were on standby in case I didn’t find the taste agreeable. More than the taste I was worried about its effect on the tummy as I had about 10 hours on the road ahead of me. I needlessly worried. The noodle and fish soup was so yummy that had it not been for the drive I would certainly had a second helping. The local dishes are devoid of masala and oil and that makes it easier on the stomach. Besides the noodle soup I had a couple of toasts and an egg with two glasses of orange juice. Oh yes, also a couple of bajjis made of onion and gourd. With that I was ready to start the second week of the expedition. In the past seven days I have done over 3600 km through India and a leg in Myanmar.

As I had mentioned yesterday I had decided to take the longer route to Monywa because of the better road conditions. In retrospect it turned out to be a good decision. The route which I had opted for has two major mountains to get through. We stopped at the base of the first mountain road, the tougher one, for refreshments and restroom use. The roads are narrow but in decent condition. I found that most of the bridges that were under construction last year were completed and commissioned. This route takes the majority of freight transportation in multi axle vehicles. The disciplined road use ensures that there are no traffic snarls.

Htoo suggested that we have lunch at Yay Myat Ni, which was a popular place for rest and food. The going was good till we were about 15 km short of the lunch halt. Suddenly there was a long row of trucks and other passenger transport lined up in front of us. It was raining too. As I maneuvered over a muddy path to get behind another car the Champion swayed from side to side, and almost dangerously. That was a clear indication that the soil was clayey and without a four wheel drive it would be impossible to negotiate such tracks. Htoo got out of the car to find out the reason for the hold up. He almost slipped and fell at a couple of places because of the clay. It was impossible to even walk on the soil, let alone drive! Htoo came back with the news that the bridge ahead was under maintenance and that a fuel bowser had got stuck in the river bed that served as the diverted route. It was not known when the situation would be remedied. A couple of vehicles had been stuck at the location for more than a day! With this information Pyae and I suggested that we turn back and head via the shorter route. Htoo was not for it because that would mean a humungous diversion from where we were. Nevertheless, I decided to turn back.

And that’s when the major trouble started. In the effort to turn the car it got caught in the slush. It would not move forward.  Whatever I did the car kept sliding and skidding. The only option was to find a truck that could tow us out of the morass. Hnin and Pyae got out of the car and walked to the other vehicles asking for help. None of them seemed to have a rope. I always carry a rope that my uncle GK Abraham insisted I carry since my London trip. However, this time when I went to collect it from him he could not recollect where he had kept it. Whenever I had the rope I didn’t have to use it. This time when I didn’t have it the situation arose to point out the deficiency!

Eventually, it skidded into a small ditch on the left side of the road that served as a drainage. I was stuck and despite all sorts of instructions from well-intentioned truckers I was unable to get out of the messy goo without help. Fortunately, the congestion got cleared and vehicles started moving. A heavy truck in the rear came astride and asked Htoo what the problem was. He had a rope on him and with Htoo assisting the cleaner of the truck they made four loops of the rope and hooked under the bumper of the Champion. I was given firm instructions about my role behind the wheel when the truck would pull. It took less than five minutes to get out on to the tarred road. Htoo compensated the crew for the assistance and told him that we would stay behind in case of further assistance till the diverted mud tracks were over. Fortunately, from thereon the Champion, wiser from the previous experience, tackled the mud tracks without a problem. There was another diversion due to an unserviceable bridge before we reached the intended lunch destination. Once the rains begin anything can happen in these parts. And delays could stretch on for days!

Lunch was a set menu that consisted of pork, chicken, soup and a host of veggies. I stuck to a small portion of rice and chicken. The preparation of country chicken was very tasty.  After lunch Htoo wanted me to try the Sientalone mango, which is considered to be the king among mangoes in Myanmar. Sient means diamond and the fruit is supposed to taste like a diamond!
The smaller mountain was done in quick time after lunch but it was dark by the time we reached Hotel Monywa, the night halt destination. We had hoped to reach Monywa in about ten hours when we left Kale. Due the dislocation and delays we reached two hours late. The distance done was 344 km. The Champion needed a makeover due to the extreme slushy conditions and incessant rain. Htoo arranged for it and personally supervised the cleaning as even the inside of the car had to be cleaned up.

It had been a long day and the best way to wind down is with a bottle of beer and good food. Myanmar beer, fish in cashew nuts, rice and mangoes served that purpose. I had got some of the uploading work done in Hotel Taung Za Lat in Kale. The rest I hoped to do in Monywa after dinner. The kind man at the reception smiled apologetically while handing over the password for the Wifi and said, “Sorry Sir, Wifi slowly working”!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Day 7 – 19 May Imphal to Kale (Myanmar)

I have known KB Singh since my days in Loyola College, Chennai from 1975. Even though we were pursuing, or sought to pursue, different disciplines we were good friends in the hostel. And those days having a friend from the North-East was like having an overseas friend! Yes, I was enveloped in that mindset where all from the North-East were grouped together. It was not until I travelled across the country and spend over a month in the seven sisters in 2010-11 did I understand the diversity and richness of the people and land in the North-East. And in making me understand this KB Singh was an essential link. I have always turned to him for support and guidance during my trips through Manipur. Last year I was in Manipur twice while on the way out of India and back in during the Singapore expedition. I also have a few very good friends in priests in Kohima and Imphal, Fr Johnny and Fr Joseph respectively, They have hosted me on a few occasions in their residences. I could have tapped their hospitality yet again. But something inside me suggested that I should look for hotel accommodation. KB Singh suggested the Hotel Classic Grande. And the events of the last evening proved that it is prudent to listen to the inner voices. Had I tied up to stay in the priests’ residence in Imphal Fr Joseph would have had a tough night with me coming into Imphal at 2.30 am! Therefore, I believe that everything happens for the best and it will, if you believe completely in that.

The hotel was an excellent choice to rest and recuperate, but I had had very little time for that; I was in and out of it in 5 hours. But the fact was that I was rested and had a full breakfast of fruit cuts, uttapam, poha and potato wedges. KB Singh joined me over a cup of tea and politics and business dominated the short meeting. I was sad to learn from him that a common friend, Budh, was unwell and is suffering from a terminal illness. My prayers for him.

KB Singh piloted me out of the city and on to the highway from where I set my sights on Moreh, the border town. People were going about their business as usual and I wondered how they could still smile when the going was so tough in that state. Take the three day bandh that completely upset the economy. It was against the legislation to introduce Inner Line Permit for Manipur. As usual it ranged the Hill people against those in the Valley. Those in the Valley are for it while the Hill people are against it. A faceoff between the Nagas and the Meities. The people in the Valley feel the need for regulation so that demographically and, consequently, politically they don’t get swamped. All the time one issue or the other serves to polarize the two sides more and more.

After the Pallel Gate, about 30 km out of Imphal, the hill section begins. The road is narrow and broken in sme places, but it was most of the way in decent condition. There are three major check points manned by the Assam Rifles as one nears the border. I had short stops at two of them. The checking is quite vigorous when one drives from Moreh to Imphal as contraband and prohibited items are high on the radar. I reached the Land Customs Stationat 10,30 am and had to wait just a while before the young Customs official explained politely that the Immigration had to be done in a makeshift office in the town. That is when I met Petrina. A Malaysian national, she has been hitchhiking from Sweden over the past year. During the entire journey she has paid for her accommodation only once and was gifted clothing and shoes by people who she met on her journey. She said that she didn’t mind scrounging in the trash cans for food! And she believed in solo travel because she wanted to experience the world the way she wanted to, and in her I found a kindred soul!

We went across to the temporary shelter that served as the Immigration office and had to wait some time for the officer to arrive. But the work was done very fast once we filled up our forms. It was back to the Customs office yet again, where the declaration of goods was given and the Carnet was stamped. I offered to give Petrina a ride to the Immigration office on the Myanmar side. She was really pleasant company with a wealth of interesting stories and anecdotes. I urged her to pen her experiences that would be invaluable to those who would want to attempt something as interesting. And the fact that she has done it as a single woman, it’s unique. She said that the country she enjoyed the most was Iran, where she felt the most safe too.

As I crossed the Friendship Bridge I found three people waiting for me. The welcome party consisted of Htoo Htet Aung, the guide, Ms. Hnin Thita, the representative of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and Ms. Pyae from the Silver Hills tour agency. We had to spend nearly an hour in the Immigration Office. Petrina joined three others who were requesting entry into Myanmar. Two of them were young cyclists who had come in from Germany and a young girl from Italy. They have been stuck in No Man’s Land for over 48 hours since their tour agency had not secured the Security Clearance for them, or so is what I understood from the conversation. Silver Hills had covered all the bases for me and my passport was stamped after some discussions. The next halt was in the Customs station. The trio had already visited the office the previous day and presented all the papers. The Carnet was stamped and the temporary registration of the car was also handed over to the guide. The car was inspected to verify the chassis number. Before we left the Customs office I corrected the watch to Myanmar time which was an hour ahead of IST.

Htoo led us to the Water World restaurant for lunch and I was famished. Rice, sweet pork, pork in cashew nuts and water cress with mushrooms was the food ordered. Large portions all of them. In good time all was done. The Chinese preparations were extremely tasty and I topped it with apple and green tea. The humungous portions cost just $14 or less than Rs 1000!
The drive to Kale took just about two hours. I was extremely cautious since I was driving on the right side of the road. The many steel bridges had to be negotiated carefully since bolts had come off in many places. A wooden bridge where the sections were being replaced proved a tough one to negotiate. And for another there was a diversion that took us across a low portion of a river. It rained heavily too and Htoo showed me places where the bridges had got washed away and vestiges of the destruction could still be seen.

We checked into the Taung Za Lat Hotel by 6 pm and I went in search of the ever elusive Wifi connection to upload the blogs. It was on and then off again. It was quite frustrating but I did get some of my work done, though not all. Dinner at 7.30 consisted of rice, spicy chicken, diced chicken with capsicum and cabbage and water cress. The preparations were once again Chinese and very tasty. I had a Hill Plantain to round up the meal. Over the meal we decided on taking the longer route to Monywa since the alternative, I judged, would be harsh on the car. Breakfast would be at 7 am and we would depart for Monywa after that.

Day 6 – 18 May Maligaon (Guwahati) to Imphal

Last evening I had to change the room that had initially been allotted to me at the ORH in Maligaon since insects stole into the room in large numbers, the kind that heralds the rain. And it poured and poured for some time. I slept like a babe in the room into which I had changed. I was well rested by the time I got up an hour before my set departure time of 5 am. I felt a certain energy flow that comes with the body and mind in complete sync. This day I was to do about 500 km to reach Imphal. I had done the stretch in May 2015 comfortably and in good time.

The drive from Maligaon to Nagaon was a beauty. Thereafter the road to Dimapur, particularly the Karbi Anglong area was in poor condition. The congestion in Dimapur seems to be going up day by day. It was a struggle. A constable in one of the police check posts I was stopped at told me with a smile that the road in Nagaland is better than it is in Assam. When I negotiated it beyond Dimapur I wondered if the constable was having a laugh at me. It took me 9 hours to reach Mao Gate in Manipur, a distance of less than 400 km.

As I approached the Gate I was amazed to find a long queue of freight trucks and, after some time, cars. I gingerly approached the Gate barrier and I was promptly stopped by two young police constables. One of them politely told me that they would not be able to permit me to go through to Imphal just yet. The reason was that there was an agitation going on regarding the Inner Line Permit and a party had called for a bandh. One of the people waiting at the Gate told me that they had been stuck at the Gate for three days. The bandh was expected to be lifted at midnight. The policemen asked me to park the car to one side of the road and wait it out for the rest of the bandh. I had reached the Gate at 1400 hours and my wait would be about 10 hours! I asked the police guys if there was any chance for me, being an adventure traveler, to ‘bypass’ the bandh. They told me with smiles on their faces that it would not be worth the risk. This has been the curse of Manipur over the years – economic blockade and political fist fights. It has cost the state a great deal

The branded car did cause a lot of curiosity amongst the people at the Gate. I had to explain my ‘mission’ to many and most gaped in disbelief. More so when they heard that I was doing it all alone. After a while it started getting quite cold and a slight rain started falling, making it all the more cooler. I decided to stay in the car and update the documentation work. A kind policeman came up later in the evening and suggested that I have a hot meal in one of the restaurants that had opened to service the stranded people at the Gate. I chose to give the meal a skip and took a nap in the car. When I woke up it was 2300 hours and there was just another hour to go before the vehicles were permitted to move. I went to the police outpost and was told that the permission to move would be given at midnight.

I wandered around a bit and the cold drove me into the car once again. It was 16 degrees outside! And it is summer. Later I was told that it rained regularly in Mao and that kept the temperature low almost the year around. A group of locals came and knocked at the window, which I lowered. They expressed their ‘love’ for the car and was effusive in wishing me well for the ride to Myanmar. I suspect that they were returning from a party to warm their innards!
Exactly at midnight the cars were waved on their way to Imphal. I decided to stay in between two tourist tempos till I got a hang of the night driving. I expected the road to be congested with heavy traffic in both directions. The expectation was natural because transportation had been affected for the past 72 hours. To my surprise, after a short while I was the only one in the direction to Imphal and there was hardly any traffic coming in the opposite direction. However, I had to be wary about the road conditions that were in many places quite bad. In some places there was slush and rubbish heaped on the road. I put that down to the bandh till I was told that Manipur had received heavy rainfall over the past 48 hours and cloudbursts had destroyed crops.

I was stopped at many police check posts. At a couple of them my identity proof was asked for. At one the inspecting official got so excited to hear that I am driving to Russia that he did not let go of my hand for quite some time. He let it go only after saying that he is a driver in the Manipur Police! At another the man on watch wanted to know if the branding was sticker or paint. Despite all these I reached the Hotel Classic Grande at 2.30 am. The security had to wake up the receptionist, who allotted me a good room in good time. Before I left for the room I asked for a wakeup call at 6.30 am. I decided to leave for the border at 7.30 after breakfast. I did not have to struggle to sleep at all. The warm bed and the quilt did the trick, after a long 21 and half hours drive for nearly 500 km from Maligaon to Imphal.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Day 5 – 17 May New Jalpaiguri to Maligaon (Guwahati)

Sharat Chandra Jethi is presently Additional Member Commercial in the Railway Board. All through my previous expedition I have leaned on him quite heavily for accommodation and facilitation. I remember the frustrating night when I was on the East-West expedition and the Rewa-Katni road had almost laid me hors d combat. It was Sharat who provided the support in securing accommodation at the shortest of possible notices and without a demur. When I was planning for the accommodation in New Jalpaiguri and Maligaon I naturally phoned up Sharat. As is usual with him, he took down the requirements to the last detail. It so happened that he was also likely to be at New Jalpaiguri on 16 May when I was to be there. We looked forward to meeting there. However, he called up on 15th to say that he would be arriving only on 17th due to official work in Guwahati. I agreed to postpone my departure from New Jalpaiguri by a few hours to accommodate the meeting.

Last evening the Senior Area Manager of NJP came to my room with a special request to shift to another rest house because the one in which I was staying would be occupied by Sharat and family the next day. as I was busy doing the blogs and other documentation I promised the Sr. AM that I would vacate the room by 5.30 am, after which it could be cleaned for the next occupant. After a bit of back and forth it was finally agreed that I would vacate soonest. Accordingly, I made sure that the luggage was loaded in the car and the room vacated by 5.30 am. The train from Guwahati was scheduled to arrive at 6 am, but it did a half hour late.
Sharat was visiting with his wife and son. Divisional officers, inspectors and staff accompanied them to the ORH, where I met them. After greetings and brief introduction of the divisional officers we went up to the room for a cup of tea. The expedition was the focus of the discussion. We caught up on news of the family too. By 7.30 it was flag off time. I was fondly seen off by all present. The Sr. AM also deputed an inspector to pilot me to a fuel station.

Despite the condition of the Farakka-Dalkhola experience I must confess that since 2010 the road infrastructure has improved considerably in West Bengal and Assam, the two states that had the worst roads in 2010 when I did the All India trip. Barring a few patches the road through Hashimara, Sreerampur, Bongaigaon and Rangia was done in less than 8 hours of driving. The distance was about 460 km. Right through the drive from the fuel station in New Jalpaiguri to the Maligaon ORH I did not get out of the car for 8 hours – some kind of a personal record.

As I was nearing Maligaon Shrey Bansal of Lifestyle Services called to say that a tour group had problems on the China border that day since the engine and chassis numbers given in the registration certificate were different from those in the car. He wanted me to confirm that the numbers tallied in my case. I rang up the Mahindra dealership in Cochin to check where the engine and chassis numbers were etched in the car. While the chassis number was easy to locate under the bonnet the engine number required the dismantling of the hood over the engine. While it was not complicated taking it off I could not put it back however much I tried. After a few unsuccessful attempts I decided to tackle that and a small issue with the bumper later in a Mahindra service station on the way. Then I decided to wash the car. When I was busy with the chore a curious taxi driver, Gautham, joined me to see what I was doing. He struck up a conversation about the drive and wanted to know what had happened with the bumper. He told me the way to the service station too. On an impulse I asked if he could put the hood back over the engine. He did that without as much as a blink. When I finished the cursory wash of the car Gautham sat beside the bumper and checked what he could do with it. In a few minutes he manipulated the portion that had come off from the clips and set it right. What a god-sent this man had been. Gautham is one of the Guardian Angels that HE had sent to attend to my needs. Friends often ask me what I would do if something went wrong with the car on the way, especially since I am ignorant of even the basic basics. However, I believe in two things. One, that you must plan for success and not failure. As my good friend MC Tom used to say, the alternative to Plan A is Plan A itself! Second, when the need arises HE will post his Guardian Angels where they are needed.

JD Goswami has been a dear friend for many decades now. The day before I was to reach Guwahati I rang up to find out his whereabouts, for I knew that he shuttled between Delhi, Guwahati and Ahmedabad. I had missed him on the past few visits to Guwahati. Fortunately, this time he said that he would reach Guwahati by evening of the 17. And he picked me up from the ORH closer to 8 pm. It had been raining heavily and progress to his house was slow. Once we reached there it was time for a 15 year Glenlivit, excellent company, delectable food and plenty of talk. The youngest daughter of Goswami is a sous chef by profession and her skills were on display. By 10 pm my eyelids refused to stay open and I had to request for a drop back to the ORH. On the way back Goswami explained the landmarks of the city that came our way.

I packed before I turned in for the night so that I could leave by 5 am.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Day 4 – 16 May Farakka to New Jalpaiguri

As the day panned out I came to believe that the change in itinerary to halt at Farakka was a God-sent. The NTPC guest house has seen better days. Lack of maintenance has eaten into the facilities available. This was made up by the extremely friendly staff of the guest house. I woke up early and thought that it had become daylight already. I went out and saw that all the lights fans in the guest house were on, in the corridors and other common areas. I wanted some hot water to make coffee. A helpful attendant immediately agreed to fetch me some. When I got back to the room I realized that the water was less than lukewarm. Had to make do with that and I did.

I had paid the guest house charges the previous night, which included a princely amount of Rs. 40 for the room. By 5 am the bags were loaded, wind shield and windows cleaned and the engine was revved up. Within 5 minutes of leaving the guest house I joined the massive queue that was patiently waiting to cross the Farakka Barrage bridge. For almost 15 minutes nothing happened. Vehicles were not even coming from the opposite direction and I could not understand why it was a complete standstill. I got out and sauntered across to the driver of the truck that was right behind me. He told me that there must be some vehicle breakdown on the bridge, otherwise it does not get so delayed, he said. However, my experience has never been pleasant here. I have been over this bridge at least 7 times in the past. Every time I have suffered huge delays. And almost always the delay shave been caused by breakdown of freight trucks on the bridge. The bridge is considered to be a strategic asset and hence, prominently displayed at many locations is the warning that photography is totally prohibited. The bridge is also guarded by the CISF, a para military force. It has beyond y understanding as to why a recovery truck is not kept in readiness to reduce the delays caused. Besides that the maintenance of the bridge is so putrid that even a normal truck passing over it will be in danger of breaking down. Why it is maintained in that condition again begs a thousand questions.

I followed a police vehicle by breaking the queue and got to the head of it. There I explained to the CISF personnel why I should be permitted on priority over the bridge. They graciously waved me on. I thought my ordeal was over. I could not have been more mistaken. It took me almost an hour to move from the Farakka end of the bridge to the Malda end, the distance of which is about two km! When I reached the exit point of the bridge I found that many broken down vehicles were parked on one side. Poor controlling of the traffic, I see, as one of the primary reasons for the needless holdup. As I was patiently waiting for the mess to clear up on the bridge I found that six trains had cleared the section. The efficiency of the railway system, in comparison to road, was amply demonstrated. This makes out a very strong case for the road bridge also to be brought under the control of the Indian Railways with security support provided by the para military force.

Once the bridge was done and dusted the next nightmare to be dealt with was the Kaliachowk, a notorious junction point. Fortunately I did not get too delayed there, however, road works all along the stretch to Malda further set me back. The worst was yet to come. I could not believe what I experienced between Raiganj and Dalkhola. Traffic slowed to a crawl and often times stopped for long periods. At times I had to be irresponsible and aggressive, qualities that I normally do not display on the road. The approach to Dalkhola was a complete disaster. I had done just 140 km in nearly seven hours since leaving Farakka! The fact that the Champion survived without a scratch was the only saving grace. The poor road infrastructure, vast hordes of humanity and crass indiscipline continued up to Kishenganj. I wonder which country Modiji would have alluded to had he visited the Farakka-Malda-Raiganj-Dalkola-Kishenganj road section that lies in the states of West Bengal and Bihar, since Somalia is already taken! But then Modiji is busy selling Make in India to the world at large. I wish he would make sure that India makes it for India in India before we sell dreams to the rest of the word

Finally after nine hours and 295 km I cut the engine in the Kanchenjunga Officers’ Rest House in New Jalpaiguri. Within a short while the initial confusion about room allotment was cleared up and I settled comfortably into the commodious suite. The Caretaker and staff recognized me from the Singapore trip, when I had halted at the same guest house. It was too late for lunch and I settled for two cups of tea instead.

Over the past few days I had not found time to get into the normal groove of routine I am used to in the expeditions. With the result I was way beyond the blog updation. I decided to spend the entire evening in the room completing the documentation. Besides, I had to arrange the photos and videos. All that was done by the time I decided to call it a day after a dinner of rotis, dal and two tasty subjis.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...