DAY ONE, MUMBAI-KOTA
I like travelling, but this venture seems like a tall order even for me. We’re to take a Logan and drive from Mumbai to Imphal? Isn’t that a bit, er, far away? Oh well, if that’s the plan, that’s the plan. It should be interesting, to say the least, and it involves driving through some parts of India I’ve never been to before, like Bihar. Some might say not having been to Bihar isn’t something to shed tears over, but new places, new experiences and all that sort of thing. I call up a few people who’re experts on the northeast region, in order to get some tips about driving there. ‘You want to drive to Imphal? Are you sure? It’s dangerous driving up there without an army escort, because kidnapping and banditry is rife.’ ‘All righty, then. What do you suggest?’ ‘It’s best avoided. Why don’t you think of some other destination?’ Some quick discussions later, we’ve fixed on Gangtok in Sikkim. It’s still a long way, a shade over 3,000 km, so it’s definitely no walk in the park. My driving buddy is to be Rohin, and we agree that leaving Mumbai as early as possible is a must.
3 am. The alarm jolts me awake, and as I try and shake off the tendrils of sleep, I wonder if this is really a good idea. Actually, nothing seems like a good idea at 3 am, so I get my act together and set out in the Logan. I’m picking up Rohin near the airport in Mumbai, and he’s just come off a very late night shoot, so I wonder what shape he’ll be in. He lands up with his parents in tow, with his mum anxiously telling him to drive safely and wash behind the ears and all of that. So, we’re finally off – let’s do this thing. The first port of call is Kota, in Rajasthan, and it’s a good 1,200 km away via Ahmedabad and Udaipur. Now, the last time I drove down that road (NH8) was in the middle of a thundering monsoon, with extensive road work being carried out. It had taken me 12 hours to drive 400 km, with agonising jams all along the way. I fervently hope that things have gotten better.
4 am starts are usually a bit painful, but one thing you do get to see is a city slowly waking up. Mumbai at 4 am is a very different city to the pulsating metropolis I’m used to seeing, that’s for sure – there’s a sudden sense of emptiness that’s a little unnerving at first. We make good progress for the first couple of hours, but the truck traffic is already fairly heavy, so in hindsight leaving early was a wise move. Winter’s set in properly, so the countryside’s draped with curtains of mist and the air, now that we’ve left the city behind, is crisp and cold. Lovely. All that remains to round this off is a hot cup of chai, which we duly down. With Sting in the CD player, we’re loping along the highway and the Logan seems to be enjoying the chance to clear its lungs – it’s an enthusiastic car once you give it some stick. Oh, but hang on, are those parked trucks in the distance? Yes they are, and my worst fears seem to have realised – it’s another of those serpentine jams that this highway is famous for. The choice is to be all proper and wait in line, or do the Indian thing and go off-roading past the queue. A quick glance at each other and the answer is obvious – time to find out what the Logan’s like when the going gets tough. The answer is that it’s pretty darn good.We bypass everybody on a rock-filled dirt track parallel to the highway, and the car doesn’t break a sweat. Soon we’re back to doing highway speeds, which is an immense relief. Of course, Murphy is watching everything with particular interest, so he throws in several more jams along the way, resulting in us losing a lot of time. Still, we’re hoping to make Kota by 9 pm so that we can get a good night’s rest, and we seem to be on course. Alas, we haven’t factored in the rather loose sense of distance that locals sometimes have. We’re directed many kilometers off the main route from Udaipur to Kota, as a result of which we blunder around in pitch darkness, on atrocious roads and with not a signboard to be seen anywhere. By the time we get to Kota, dog tired and ready to drop, its 1 am. We barely notice the splendid architecture of the Umed Bhawan Palace hotel where we’re staying, instead trudging to our rooms and pretty much collapsing in exhaustion. We’re driving to Lucknow the next day, and we can only hope we’ll have better roads... and luck.
DAY TWO, KOTA-LUCKNOW
‘What a country!’ I must have blurted that out a couple of times already. There is an India beyond four-laned 100 kph bliss, a world buzzing with tractors, cows, school children and their inquisitive smiles and... yes, dead buffalo carcasses by the roadside. This is rural India, a concoction of the best six-rupees-per-plate jalebis and suicidal cyclists. Sleep deprivation just adds a unique twist to the equation, making trigonometry seem like sixth grade math. All of it adds up to a detour, but as it turns out, it was necessary. As we exit Kota, the four-laning throws a spanner into the works, and instead of finding our way back to the national highway, we begin to meander through state highways. The great thing about them is that they just seem to have so much more colour and life.
We soon find piping hot jalebis and tea to make up for breakfast at Baran, and a quick dash across the border to Shivpuri for a wholesome lunch. From Shivpuri to Jhansi is a wonderful four-laned highway, just readied, and the 90 km dash takes us to Jhansi in 70 minutes flat. Along the way, we stop at a heritage village, called Shahabad to shoot some photographs. It’s what typical villages a couple of decades ago looked like, and leaves quite a deep impression on Pablo, who goes all shutter happy. The progress towards Lucknow seems a bit behind schedule and we’re losing time, but on the flat stretches the Logan hovers around the 100-120 kph mark, putting towns behind it in no time. But as we start to nudge into Uttar Pradesh, NH25 starts to develop wheel-rim size potholes. These slow us down all the way up to Barah, where the NH2 takes us to Kanpur. This 150 km really shows us the poorer side of UP, where electricity is scarce and people live in abject poverty. NH2 turns out to be a saviour, however – for a while at least. The roads soon open up to four lanes of distance-shortening exercise, and just past 9:15 pm, we enter the Kanpur-Lucknow bypass. Alas, an accident on the bypass puts paid to our plans and we have to drive through Kanpur, on to the Grand Trunk Road, and then twiddle our thumbs at a railway crossing, as not one, not two, but five trains go past, one after another. Thankfully, just as we anticipated, the road from Kanpur to Lucknow is a good one, and after a quick bite at a pump along the route, we enter Lucknow just around midnight.
Now, Pablo loves Lucknow, and soon enough, as I ask around for directions to our hotel, I realise why. People in Lucknow, in general, are polite. Maybe it has something to do with their nawabi background, but every time I thank a person, they smile back with a ‘You are welcome’. In a state where the gun-culture is second only to Bihar, Lucknow stands like a last bastion, a ray of hope that all’s not lost. It’s also what India is, a study in stark contrasts that exist just kilometres apart. Like I said before, ‘What a country!’ DAY THREE, LUCKNOW-GORAKHPUR
Yes, I love Lucknow, and it’s great to be back. I’ve only been here once before, but once was enough. It’s probably the only place in UP that I can bear to be in – no offence intended. There’s still an all-pervasive sense of history to the city, no matter how hard the dust, noise and filth try to suppress it. There’s just one problem – on our rather tight schedule, we don’t have much time to go around the city, or at least not as much as I’d like. Then Rohin has a brainwave. He’s got an uncle in Gorakhpur, 300 km from Lucknow. Go-rakh-pur. Go on, say it – can you get any more UP than that? If we spend the night in Gorakhpur, rather than Darbhanga in Bihar (where we’d originally planned to drive to), then we can drive around Lucknow a bit and not have to do another 15+ hour driving day. A call to said uncle and everything’s set. We check out of the Clarks hotel and drive to Qaiserbagh, just around the corner (Lucknow’s a small town), where we have a look at some of the lovely old buildings there, including one where the part of the classic Umrao Jaan was shot. Then it’s over to the Residency, where Indian mutineers laid siege to the British during the revolt of 1857, and finally down to the banks of the Gomti river, where several cricket matches are on full swing. It really is a pity that we can’t stay longer; lunch at Tunde Mian, with lots of kababs and parathas would have been perfect. Instead, it’s a quick lunch at McDonalds, inside a mall no less (blasphemy, I know) and we’re off towards Gorakhpur.
We’re really passing through the heart of the cow belt here, and traffic is fairly chaotic. It’s a lovely day, though, with the sun making the surrounding fields glow. We drive past miles of fields, villages and dusty little towns, all frankly looking alike, and it’s hard to keep awake (I’m the passenger, mind you). Towards evening, we pull over towards a highway-side tea stall, and an elderly farmer attempts the exact same thing, from the opposite direction, on his bullock cart. The brakes on the Logan are considerably better than his, with the result that the yoke on his bullocks comes clean off. He lets fly some choice epithets, and I go over to help him put the yoke back on. He’s taken aback, but continues to let off steam; meanwhile villagers sitting at the tea stall come over to lend a hand. They manage to pacify him, all the while smiling at me, and he’s finally on his way, grumbling under his breath. A couple of staggeringly sweet teas later, we’re off too.
By five thirty it’s pretty dark, and by six it’s as good as night. We press on towards Gorakhpur, stopping only to take a few photos; we’re tired and looking forward to a home-cooked meal. The roads so far have been fairly good, but as we enter Gorakhpur the craters begin – it’s a crawl to the house of Mr Dhawan Rao, our host for the night. He directs us to his in-laws’ house, where there’s a tea-party on full swing. It’s a jolly affair, and we’re bombarded with questions about our trip so far, plus the inevitable car-buying queries. We’re fed pineapple cake, rasgullas, spiced green peas, mithai, mixture and tea almost simultaneously, which we put down in record time. When we reveal we’re about to drive through Bihar, a shocked silence ensues, followed by a volley of advice. ‘It’s very dangerous!’ ‘Don’t stop anywhere!’ ‘There are no roads!’ ‘If someone says something to you, just listen, don’t answer back!’ ‘If it gets dark, just park and sit tight!’ It’s all highly encouraging and fills us to the brim with confidence.
Later, at Mr. Rao’s house, we’re shown to our room, and after freshening up we join him, his wife and two of his relatives for drinks. If you’ve never had Bacardi with rock salt before, well, I suggest you try a little bit first – it’s an acquired taste. More gross overeating ensues, with shammi kababs, chicken curry and spicy fried potatoes taking pride of place. The 6 am start that we have planned for the next day is beginning to look endangered from the start. We finally retire at 12, with the prospect of a long drive through Bihar ahead of us. Gulp. DAY FOUR, GORAKHPUR-NIRMALIA
‘Wake up, it’s 6.15!’ screams Pablo, jolting me out my sleep. We’re late, but we find it hard to avoid a sumptuous breakfast and tea served by my uncle and aunt. We fall for it, and 7.00 am turns to 7.30. Goodbyes exchanged, we head out of Gorakhpur, taking the map chalked out by my uncle. Now, Gorakhpur is full of statues on crossings and we have to take a turn at the bust of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. We lose time trying to locate it, and it’s not until 8 am that we are out of Gorakhpur and headed for Kushinagar.
It’d been 16 years since I’d last visited Kushinagar, a small town well known for its Buddhist temples, and a sleeping Buddha. This 20-foot long statue of Buddha, covered in a sheath of gold, is well known among followers of Buddhism. It also receives a fair share of funding from countries such as Japan and Thailand, and it’s this funding that has kept the place running. I remember the complex being silent, with hardly any vehicles or people, a place where solitude was easy to come by. Not any longer. The small hamlet is now a town of sorts, there are far too many people and the complex is awash with plastic bags. And the biggest difference for me is the concept of size. At the age of nine, 20 feet felt like 60. Now, when the statue looks its size, it doesn’t feel as magnificent as it did, but make no mistake, it’s still big enough to make you stare for a while.
Kushinagar is out of the way and we are now trying to make fast progress through the remainder of UP and a dash to Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Our target for today is Siliguri, 710 km from Gorakhpur and the Logan and the two of us have a big task ahead. Despite asking several people, we remain clueless about the state of Bihar’s roads, but still we guess that the NH57 from Muzaffarpur is a two-laned highway, and we should make fair progress and reach Siliguri by late evening. We want to get out of Bihar by the time the sun sets, paranoia taking reins over common sense. Once we cross the border into Bihar, the roads start to worsen, and we begin to wonder if this is just a phase or the beginning of even worse roads. We manage to find a Reliance A1 Plaza just before Muzaffarpur to catch a quick lunch. Soon enough, we are joined by a group of gun-toting men who take a corner table. We keep our distance and as we clear our bill, one of them comes right up
to me and mumbles something. I freeze for a moment, thinking I’m done for. ‘How good is the Logan?’ he asks. Sense prevails and we chit-chat about the car. He’s impressed, but says he has to wait since he’s just bought another car. We bid goodbye and for the first time it hits me – paranoia is a state of mind. Or is it?
We cross Muzaffarpur and the roads start to deteriorate further. The two-laned highway turns to one and there’s heavy bus traffic. Progress is now even slower, as the roads to Darbhanga, our next stop, worsen. The Logan is taking it all very well, though, making us feel comfortable, and though it’s scraping its belly when the ditches get deep, it still moves on relentlessly. I don’t think Mahindra Renault did trial runs in this part of the country, but it seems like it was built keeping these conditions in mind.
But it’s the roads, and the poor Logan can’t help beyond a point. Darbhanga comes and goes and all along Bihar, we can see only one image – acute poverty. Basic necessities seem invisible. People are covered in dust, some even without half their clothes. One feels pity for a state that has gone from being one of the richest to one of the poorest. North Bihar is a perfect example, and it shakes us both. At Jhanjharpur, we switch roles and I get back behind the wheel. It’s nearly 4.30 in the evening, and the light has started to recede. We can see work going on for a four-laned highway, one which our map did mark, but never mentioned, ‘under construction’. We get on and off, to make up for lost time, but it’s too late. It turns six and the light has totally gone. We are still some 160 km from good roads in Purnia, but we’re fighting a losing battle. We make a couple of wrong turns, then head back on to the road under construction. Then we get stuck in some muck trails left behind by NHAI tipper trucks. Pablo takes help from a local to push us out, but I know we are stuck in Bihar.
For the first time, I can sense real fear.Just a couple of metres later, we stop a Scorpio, laden with officials from NHAI, and ask for directions. ‘Are you mad? Don’t even think of going any further, it’s too dangerous’ exclaims one of the seniors. The fear now takes further hold. ‘You will take nine hours to reach Purnia, minimum. What you need to do is stay overnight at Nirmaliya, a small town just three km ahead, and then leave for Siliguri via the Nepal border some 30 km away. Don’t even bother going through Bihar.’ We don’t know Nirmaliya, we don’t know any people in Bihar. We don’t know if it’s safe. Will we live to see tomorrow? These are questions we don’t have answers for, as we slowly make our way into the town. The rest house that we find for the night is a Rs 120 affair, with a room and attached toilet and a bed. That’s it. The lights go out at 9 pm, we get a single blanket between the two of us. The owner also advises us to head through Nepal and says that it’s safe to go through there. Pablo feels better, I’m only half-convinced. We lock ourselves in our room for the night, vowing not to open the door until 6 am the next morning when we head out. It’s freezing. We forget completely about dinner, make a couple of last calls to loved ones and hit the bed by 10 pm. I cover myself in half a blanket, not sure if we will wake up alive the next morning. The lights go off. This could very well be my last slumber. DAY FIVE, NIRMALIA-GANGTOK
The alarm on my phone jars me awake at 5.30 am – not that I’m comatose with sleep, mind you. It’s been a cold night, with only one blanket between the two of us, and sleep has come fitfully. The other patrons of the ‘rest house’ appear to be up and about already; the sounds of morning ablutions act as an alarm clock of their own. All things considered, it hasn’t been too bad a night. We’re still alive, no one has attempted to rob or molest us and the car is still standing, intact, where we parked it the previous night. Indeed, the proprietor of the rest house has been friendliness personified, and answers our repeated queries about driving directions through Nepal patiently. It’s funny what paranoia can do to a person – you begin to stop thinking and act purely out of a mixture of fear and ignorance. Sure, Bihar can be dangerous, but it’s probably not fair to tar everybody in the state with the same brush.
It turns out the house next to the rest house, in the courtyard of which the Logan is parked, is an old one; it looks like the sort of thing a rich zamindar would have built. It’s absolutely beautiful, and sadly beginning to fall apart. It’s some sort of government office now, which would explain the state of disrepair. Anyhow, we set out bright and early, heading for the border with Nepal. The going is slow and tortuous – there really are no roads to speak of in these parts. The Logan handles it all brilliantly, though; we really can’t praise its suspension enough. Almost on cue, and to go with the rest of our Bihari travails, we have a puncture, the first (and only) problem we will have with the car. We fit the stepney and attempt to repair the punctured tyre with a kit, but it’s hopeless; we’re both useless at it and there’s nowhere to fill it with air anyway. Fingers crossed, we head on. The countryside is truly lovely, all fields and mist and morning light. It’s a real pity this state has been reduced, by politicians, to the mess it is today.
Inching along, we reach the border at Kanauli, where we fill in the register at the check-post. There’s bad news, though. ‘A strike has just been declared in Nepal. It’s highly doubtful you’ll be allowed to pass through to Siliguri.’ Oh no, not this. We simply don’t have the energy or willingness to turn back and attempt Bihar again, so we decide to take our chances. An Indian border guard is going on leave to Siliguri, so we give him a lift and strike out. He says strikes are dangerous in Nepal, with no traffic being allowed through anywhere, so we’ll probably have to get to Siliguri via another route in Bihar. Our hearts sink further. We keep driving anyway, and soon we’re on a brilliantly surfaced road in Nepal. ‘It won’t last, we’ll have to pass back into India soon’, says the guard. This time, however, luck is on our side. We miss the turn off back into Bihar and before we know it we’re well and truly in Nepal, charging down towards Siliguri. Life appears to be normal, with no sign of a strike; again, my point about paranoia is proven. This road is probably the best stretch we’ve encountered in our entire drive, and we make brilliant time. We pass through several Nepalese towns, not too different from any Indian ones except that they’re cleaner, and with ads for Oranjeboom beer all over the place. Lots of Indian Yamaha motorcycles to be seen here, with the odd Bajaj, TVS and LML thrown in, plus some Chinese makes. Some of the women are astoundingly pretty – I must come back to Nepal in less trying circumstances and with more time on hand. The Logan attracts a lot of attention, naturally, and it flies down the highway with as much ease as it handles the bad stuff.
When we’re almost home, Murphy throws one last curve-ball at us. There’s been an accident on the highway and irate locals have blocked it off a mere 12 km from the Indian border. The Nepalese police tell us to sit tight and wait, since they have no idea how long it will take to clear the situation up. Luckily, our hitch-hiking friend flashes his ID card and finds out about an alternate route to the border, which we immediately take. It’s a dirt road, quite flat, and it passes through a few charming Nepalese villages – again, I’m struck by the levels of cleanliness and comparative prosperity. We make it back to the highway, after which we rush gratefully into West Bengal. Over tea with the border guards, I realise I haven’t been this pleased to come back to India in a while. The deep irony is that we had to pass through a foreign country to do it!
From the border, it’s a three-hour drive up to Gangtok, via some scenic roads overlooking the emerald-green Teesta river. I’m aware that we’re within touching distance of our goal, but strangely I feel no elation, just an overwhelming sense of relief; perhaps it’s just fatigue. We drive up to the Orange Village resort, get out of the car and give it a long look. It’s covered with dust, but other than that it’s almost as fresh as a daisy. We’ve just put it through 3,000 km of some of the worst roads on the planet, and it looks like it could drive right back through them without a hiccup. I’m honestly not sure if any other sedan in its class would have made it through with such consummate ease, with only a puncture to show for its troubles. We knew the Logan was a tough, no-nonsense car – we’ve just discovered that it might well be indestructible. We, on the other hand, are definitely destructible, so after a quick dinner and a celebratory toast with Sikkimese cherry brandy, we hit the sack. It’s been a long, tiring drive, sometimes harrowing but always interesting; in this crazy country, it couldn’t have been any other way. Do I want to go near a car for the next few days? Not on your life. Would I do it all again? You bet.