Thomas Chacko's enthusiasm in motor sport and travel has inspired him to take the Nano on a journey across every state in India. Join us as we follow his expedition across the corners of the country in an exciting 75 - day road trip.
This was to be the last day of our trip and the last leg was from Aurangabad to Mumbai via Pune. So we decided to leave after breakfast.
The restaurant, we learned, did not serve breakfast and we had to order room service for that. Noting that the hotel had poha on the room service menu, I ordered that item. The hotel assured us that the food would be ready by 7.30 and so we got ready and waited for breakfast to arrive.
I was having poha for the first time and I enjoyed the dish prepared from rice flakes. Breakfast over we checked out and loaded the car. As I was about to get into the car an elderly Sikh gentleman, seeing the decal on the car, came up and asked me where I had been to on the Adventure Drive. I told him that I had covered every state capital and had been to many other places over the last couple of months including Khardung La. He was most impressed and more so when in answer to his query I told him that I had not had any trouble with the car.
We set out and made good time. We reached Pune at about 12.30 but from then on it was a drag. It took us almost an hour to exit the city. However, soon after exiting Pune, we hit the express highway where we paid a toll of Rs.150, the highest single toll that I paid on the trip. I expected to really make up the time I had lost in Pune.
However the heavy rain that came down when we were on the expressway put paid to that.
We stopped at the food court petrol pump complex on the highway about 40 km before Panvel and then after some tea and snacks, drove on. We reached Khargar by about 3.30 pm and then after a quick dash to the Federal Bank where I had my log signed by the manager, Mr. B. Kumar and then went to Arcy’s home.
There I sent messages to everyone connected with the trip and then sat down to complete my daily reports of the past few days. The long distances that I had covered had given me little time to sit down and write them.
- Thomas Chacko
In spite of having reached late we managed to leave the hotel by 7.20 am. The road was good and we made good progress till just before Akola when we found a road to Aurangabad our destination. Our plan was to go from Aurangabad to Ellora and then, after visiting Ellora, go on to Mumbai.
However, by the time we reached Aurangabad at around 1 pm, I knew I would not be able to drive to Mumbai that day. So we checked into a hotel that we found and after washing our faces went down to its excellent vegetarian restaurant and had a thali lunch. Our repast over, we left for Ellora, which is about 30 km away.
Ellora has in all 34 caves all along a 2 km escarpment. We knew we could not visit all the caves in the time frame available to us and had decided to concentrate on Cave 16 which housed the Kailasa Temple which is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world. According to the guide books more than 7000 workers had labored for over 150 years to create this awesome temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.
So when we reached Ellora, we headed straight for Cave 16. Built in 760 AD by King Krishna I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty the temple is indeed truly magnificent. Within the structure there are halls, balconies and surrounding it are covered walkways all embellished with sculptures and motifs. What is amazing is that all this was created from one single rock and that the temple complex is monolithic.
One can only try and imagine the effort it took to chip and cut with hammer and chisel and to clear away over 200,000 tons of rock from the place which covers an area twice the size of the Parthenon in Greece.
What is even more impressive is that was hewn down from top to bottom. That meant that there was no room for any error. All the aid that the architect had for designing and executing the project were probably instruments like plumb lines and protractors!
From the Kailasa Temple we went 4 other caves. One had a beautiful sculpture of the River Goddess, but after Kailasa none of them could really impress. Along the way we had seen a signpost that pointed the way to Aurangzeb’s tomb. So on our return we went there. After seeing the mausoleum in which his father and mother were buried, Aurangzeb’s tomb was a disappointment. I did not even take a photograph.
Thereafter we went back to the hotel, had an excellent vegetarian dinner and went to bed
- Thomas Chacko
The last place on my itinerary was Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Raipur lies about 280 km from Nagpur and since it did not have much to offer by way of historic sights, I decided that I would go there, meet the journalists and return to Nagpur and if possible even beyond that city.
We left the hotel by 7 am and drove to Zero Mile where I took a photograph and then found our way to the highway to Raipur. Initially the road was single track but after about 60 km became a 4 lane double road.
Since I would not be staying in a hotel in Raipur, I decided to call on the Federal Bank and get my log book signed by the manager. I called up Kunju and he in turn called the manager Mr. Jaykumar. So when we reached the branch there was a welcome committee present. They took us in and kept one of the staff in the car to prevent the police from hauling it away as they had done in Leh!
We spent some time at the3 bank and when we left found that the car had been washed! I did not know how to thank the man. From the bank we went to the Mayura hotel where the press meet had been arranged and had our lunch there.
The journalists arrived as scheduled at 2 pm and we had a good interaction. One of them, a Gujarati, who like me had spent time in Calcutta, chatted with me in Bengali.
We were able to leave the Mayura by 3 pm and after filling petrol were on the highway. At about 5 pm we ran into rain, at first a drizzle and then a heavy downpour which lasted for quite a while. We reached Nagpur by about 8 pm and after confirming with a hotel in Amravati that a room was available proceeded towards that city. There was intermittent rain and it was past 11 pm by the time we checked in. We had ordered dinner over the telephone and so we had hot food waiting for us. By the end of the day we had covered 755 km, the highest I had ever driven in a day on this trip.
- Thomas Chacko
Knowing that we had a lot of running ahead of us and realizing that if the road continued to be as bad as the approach into Indore had been, it would be indeed a very long day we started out early at 6 am.
The staff at reception, when asked about the best route to Nagpur, called up the person in charge of the travel desk. He suggested that we go through Omkareshwar, Khandwa, Burhanpur, Akola, Amravati.
The route was beautiful through rolling green hills, but it was much lo9nger than we had expected it to be. I began to have my doubts whether I would be able to make it to Nagpur in time to meet the journalist. I pressed on but was impeded by the many speedbreakers we encountered. I have never seen so many speedbreakers on a stretch of road.
I planned to stop at Omkareshwar and see the Om shaped island and visit, if permitted, the Shri Omkar Mandhata, the cave like temple which houses one of the 12 jyothi lingams. However, there were no signboards to indicate the turn off from the highway and it was only after about 10 km that I realized that we had overshot. With time running out I decided to press on. It was a pity for the jyothi lingam at Omkareshwar is the only one that is shapeless.
By about 3 pm I realized that I would not make it to Nagpur in time for the appointment and called up and suggested, since there was only one journalist, that we do a telephone interview. A little after 5 pm the lady called and I pulled over to the side and had a long chat with her. She seemed quite satisfied with the interview and I drove on. We finally reached Nagpur, the geographical centre of India, by about 7 pm and checked in to the hotel.
Later in the evening my niece Mithoo, her daughter Sandhya and husband Sunil came over and spent some time with us.
- Thomas Chacko
I woke up in utter darkness to the sound of my mobile’s alarm bell. I did not know where I was and presumed it must be Rahul’s and it was only when it rang again insistently that I realised that Rahul was no longer with me and that he had gone back to Bangalore.
Having told Bejoy that I would pick him up at 6 am I hurried through my morning ablutions and checked out of the Sheraton and then drove the couple of kms to the IDBI guesthouse.
As always Bejoy was on time and in few minutes we were off on the road to Chittorgarh to see what has been described as the greatest fort in Rajasthan, perhaps in all of India.
When we entered the town we could see the fort dominating the surrounding area, perched as it is on a 150 metre plus cliff. We could see its long walls encircling a large area, which I later learned was more than 10 km in length.
We drove up through the gateways in its walls and past stone buildings that told the story of Rajput chivalry and honour.
As I could not help wondering if the walls of Vijayanagar was something like this. There is nothing left of Vijayanagar’s walls to tell the story of how a mighty empire was brought down. Here in Chittorgarh there is plenty to remind us of its glorious past. Chittor’s warriors, heavily outnumbered by enemy forces, rode to their death while their womenfolk and children committed jauhar. This happened at least three times – in 1303, in 1535 and 1568.
We did not stop there for very long – just enough for me to get a picture in my head of what it must have been like to attack and to defend the fort. We had a long drive ahead of us so we drove out of the fort, found a good restaurant to have lunch in and then left for Indore.
The road was good till just a bit before the border and I began to wonder if it would be like my previous experience of Madhya Pradesh all over again. I was, however, in for a surprise. The road actually improved after we entered the state and remained so till about 40 km before Indore when it reverted to Madhya Pradesh’s almost patented roads!
It took us a while to go all the way through town to the Ginger where the staff on duty recognized me from my stay there on 3rd May, the day I started out on the Nano Drive form Mumbai.
- Thomas Chacko
With the Taj being closed on Fridays we had decided to go early morning to the mausoleum on Saturday. So we woke up early packed our stuff and then went and drove to the Taj’s parking lot. From there we walked to the Taj. It was about 1 km away and the morning walk good for both of us.
The man at the ticket counter had some doubts about Rahul’s Indian identity and insisted on our showing him our identity papers. I guess with foreigners having to pay Rs.750 as against Rs.20 for Indians, they had to be careful.
When we reached the entry point, we found a long queue for foreigners and none at all for Indians. However the guard asked for our identity and asked us where we were from. When I told him we were from Kerala and presented our driving licences, he looked at them and then handed them to a jawan standing nearby and asked him to check. It was only when the jawan told him that we were from Kerala that he let us through.
They say that early morning is the best time to visit the Taj and I agree. For one, the crowds are less and the marble and stone cool and easy to walk on barefoot. We left our footwear at the free service counter and entered the raised platform on which the mausoleum stands.
The building has been described many times and so I shall not dwell on that. It cost an astronomical amount of money and I am sure it must have seemed such a colossal waste of money to the people of those days. However, just like the fairytale castle built by the mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria at Neuschwanstein, the Taj has become the greatest tourist draw in the land and something that the entire country treasures.
Rahul took quite a lot of photographs and after we had toured the entire place we left. On our way back we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast and then collected the car and went back to the hotel. There after checking in we called Ronny to thank him for everything he had done for us. He then said he would be down shortly. He came and later he called Mr.Suji, the General Manager too.
We chatted for a while and then Ronnie told us that he had had the car washed and then also gave us a parcel containing sandwiches and water.
Thereafter, the Taj staff took photographs of us and the now freshly washed and cleaned Nano. We left a little later than planned but were soon out of Agra.
We made good progress till about 30 km from Delhi. Thereafter the traffic became heavy and very slow moving. I began to wonder if we would make it to the Ginger in time for the press meet at 3 pm. We made it just on time.
The interaction with the press was very good and they were all very impressed with the performance of the Nano, especially after I showed them the clip that Rahul took of the Nano negotiating the slushy road on the Rohtang pass.
- Thomas Chacko
Lucknow to Agra is through NH 2 and it was four lane almost all the way. The only bottleneck we had was at Kanpur after we crossed the Ganga. A flyover was being built but as with all construction activities in India, the diversions necessitated because of such constructions are very difficult to negotiate. Add to that the complete lack of road courtesy and you can imagine the scene.
We reached Agra by early afternoon and tried to get to the hotel in which we had booked our room, but found that we could not take the car there as it was within the perimeter in which only battery powered vehicles or vehicles specifically allowed could enter.
I then remembered Ronny John whom I had met at the wedding Geetha and I attended in Goa just before I set out in the Nano from Mumbai. Ronny was head of HR at the Taj Gateway in Agra. I managed to locate his card and gave him a call and asked him if there were any rooms available at the Taj.
Ronny was pleased to hear from me and said he would check and call me. He called a little while later to say that there was a room and so we made haste there. We were provided with a lovely room.
After putting our bags in the room we went to the Agra Fort. It was, as expected, an impressive citadel. We took quite a few photographs and then drove out to Fatehpur Sikri about which we had heard and read a lot. It took us quite a while to get there because we took the shortest road which was through very crowded streets. When we reached Fatehpur we were in for some surprises. There was a board stating “Palace ruins, etc and "Dak Bungalow" When we tried to drive on that road the guard told us that it was only for VIPs who had booking in the Dak Bungalow! When I told him that the Dak Bungalow was only one of several places on the road he would not budge.
We went further down the main road and suddenly a bunch of guys pushed a wheeled board into our path and told us that private vehicles were not allowed to go to the ruins and that we could take a bus that would take us through the place. We could park the car there and take their bus. Rahul did not want to go around in a bus and so I began turning the car around. Then a couple of guys ran up to the car and asked me why I was leaving. I said I would complain that they were blocking a public road (It leads to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) to get people to get on their bus and then drove off. What we had seen of the place was not as great as had been made out and when we talked to Ronny the next day he too agreed that it was more of hype than anything else.
- Thomas Chacko
We woke up at 4 am and managed to get out of the hotel by 4 am and drove to Haridwar. It was raining most of the way and so we made good progress because ther e were no Kawadias around. We reached Haridwar by about 5.30 am.
By then the rain had ceased and the Kawadias were out. We crossed the Ganga and then proceeded down the road to Barielly. All along the way there were groups of Kawadias and naturally we were bogged down in traffic. An hour or so later the numbers came down and we were able to speed up.
We passed through Bijnar, Bareilly and Shahjahanpur and finally by about 4 pm, twelve hours after we had started out we reached Lucknow.
There we went to the hotel in which we had booked and found that the room had been given to someone else. They said that the room had been given to another Mr. Thomas! They offered to get me a room in a nearby hotel, but it was clear that they were trying to pull one over me because I overheard one of them telling the other hotel that they wanted the room they had requested. Why should they request a room even before I had arrived?
I had no choice but to accede because the journalists had been requested to come to the hotel and now they would have to be informed. So I called Parul who was convening the press meet and told her. She said she would try and contact the journalists.
I then went to the other hotel and found that its lobby was much better for meeting the journalists. That was a bit of a relief.
In about an hour the journalists came across and we had a good session. I also managed to get my story of the room fiasco across to them.
At night we went out to try the famous Tunday Kabab. There was an outlet nearby and we went there and tried out the tunday kebab which turned out to be the softest kabab that I have ever tried. The story that is given out is that it was created originally for a nawab who had lost all his teeth! Yes it was great but I would plonk for the kababs made at Nizams in Kolkata anytime. Perhaps when I lose all my teeth…. But then there are dentures, now!
- Thomas Chacko
From Chandigarh we drove to Dehradun and had no difficulty in finding our hotel. After checking in and having lunch in the hotel’s restaurant, we went to the Indian Forest Research Institute. I had been to Dehradun before and had seen quite a bit of the place but not the IFRI so it was with some anticipation that we went there. The IFRI, known locally as FRI, is located just about 5 km from the centre of town and encompasses about 1200 acres! What is most noteworthy about the place is the huge IFRI building. According to Lonely Planet, it is bigger than Buckingham Palace and just as impressive. We could not get the entire building in one frame and, with Rahul not liking fooling with Photoshop and the like to get it all in one photograph, decided to take the best shots possible.
Thereafter we filled the tank and returned to the hotel. There on checking with the front office manager we were told that the Delhi road was closed because of the Kawadias – village folk from all over UP who travelled to Haridwar to collect holy water from the Ganges. These people walk hundreds of miles to get to Haridwar and walk back to their homes in groups. That naturally slows down traffic. We were therefore advised to star as early as possible so that we would not have too much of a problem.
We then had dinner at the hotel and then went to bed early.
- Thomas Chacko
We left Shimla at about 6 am and made good progress but about 4 km before Solan which name I recall from Solan No.1, a popular brand of whiskey during my days in Calcutta. I wondered if it is still as popular. At this point we came upon a long of buses and trucks. Apparently there was an accident involving truck and a bus. Although no one was hurt, the jam was occasioned by motorists every one of whom wanted to squeeze through, No patience and no idea of how to drive in the hills.
After a long wait we were able to move on. It started raining but with the road surface being quite good and broad for a hill road, we were able to maintain good speed and we reached the hotel in Chandigarh well in time to meet the press.
I also had to send the car to the workshop to have it checked after the really tough terrain it had gone through for almost 2000 km.
The local distributor sent a driver to pick up the car and soon thereafter my cousin Anila came to the hotel and picked us up. She took us to her home and then on a whirlwind tour of the city. Chandigarh is a lovely city and India’s only planned city, a city designed by the great Le Corbusier. I was impressed by the wide roads, the roundabouts and the long wooded walkways through which one can almost traverse the entire city. Anila took us to the Nek Chand Fantasy Park. The park is the creation of Nek Chand a road inspector who over a period of many years created fabulous structures in a copse in Chandigarh. Later the government got to know about it and after the usual bickering by the babus about encroachment and the like, helped to make Nek Chand’s creations known and eventually honoured him with a Padma Bhushan. Today it is perhaps Chandigarh’s greatest attraction.
I went back to the hotel, kept my appointment with the journalist and then waited for the car to be delivered. It was delivered by 6 pm and I went to Anila’s place and after dinner with the family returned to the hotel.
- Thomas Chacko
We left Manali at 6.30 am and drove through Old Manali to the highway to Shimla. It was good going but the ride took much longer than we had thought it would. Along the way we came across a huge herd of sheep and we stopped. I think Rahul got quite a few good shots.
At Shimla we found our way to the hotel, again one well recommended by Lonely Planet, and checked in. It was already past 3 and since I was to meet the press at 4 pm, we ordered lunch and I waited in the lobby for the journalist to come.
The press arrived on time and the journalist after interviewing me asked about photographs. I offered to show him photographs on my camera. When he saw the clip of my driving the Nano over the wet and slushy slope near the Rohtang pass, he said that his family had been contemplating changing their small car and the photographs he had seen and the talk he had had with me had convinced him that it should be a Nano. I think I should charge the company a commission!
Rahul was not feeling good and said he had a headache. So I let him have a snooze and went for a walk to the Mall. No vehicles are allowed on the Mall so there was no point in taking the Nano. I walked the 2.5 km to the Mall and although it was uphill almost all the way I did not feel too tired.
The Mall is perhaps what makes Shimla te lovely capital city is and I enjoyed thetime I spent there.
- Thomas Chacko
We woke up at 4 and managed to get ready and leave by 4.50 am. In about half an hour we arrived at a little town of Tandi, which is one of the few places on the route that has a fuel station. However, as we exited the town we came to a place where there was a bridge to the right and a road that veered to the left. There was no board to indicate the road to Manali nor was there anyone in sight. So we backtracked till we found some people on the roadside and asked for directions. Apparently it was the road that veered left so we went back.
The road was good for quite a long distance but about 20 km before the top of Rohtang La, it started deteriorating and then became bad till about 5 km before the crest when it became smooth and black topped. We reached the crest without any difficulty but there was nothing there to indicate that we were on top of the Rohtang Pass. A little later we came upon a field of snow. There were groups of tourists there, some having rides on snowmobiles. We took a couple of photographs and drove on.
About 6 km after the crest we came to a very slushy stretch of road but after we had ploughed our way through the muck we had to stop behind a line of vehicles. Up ahead we could see trucks of the Border Roads Organisation and work in progress on the slope. Rahul went up to check and returned to say that they were dumping rocks on the slope, breaking them into smaller pieces and then covering it with earth.
There was nothing to do but wait. So we waited. After a while we saw a man leading ponies with tourists riding on them. Not a bad way to get to Rohtang, I thought . Then came a few bikers on Royal Enfields.One of them was struggling and finally came to a halt in slush almost alongside us. He tried getting it started again, but failed. So I went across and helped him and his companion to push it out of the muck and on to the side of the road.
Soon there were other bikers and they tried to help the guy. Apparently it could not be repaired on the road so they talked a truck driver into loading the bike on his empty truck and waited for the road work to be over.
We were soon joined by a group of jawans in fatigues. One of them asked me if I had been there since the previous day. When I asked him why he thought so, he said that he had seen the car the day before on the More Plain.
Finally we were allowed to move on. Praying that I would not hit any rock large hidden under the earth, I gunned the engine and drove up sliding through the soft mud before reaching the place where the work had been done. By then people were lining the road and to their cheers, clapping and words of encouragement the Nano went over the crest. Rahul had not sat in the car and was outside shooting a clip of the Nano going up the slope. I waited to pick him up and moved on.
Well the test was over and the Nano had made it through every kind of terrain that India could throw up. From now on it would be almost Sunday driving except perhaps if there were floods along the way. The immediate problem, however, was to thread our way through the tourist vehicles parked all along the way. Half an hour later we were on good solid road and away from the block on the road.
We had booked a hotel in Old Manali and we found the place without any problem and checked in. There after lunch we rested and then I went for a badly needed haircut n a nearby barber shop.
I managed to get someone to wash the car – it had been a really long time since it was washed. Thereafter I joined a group of guests in the restaurant and waited for the Federer - Murray match to begin. They had a large screen TV in the place and everyone there was a Federer supporter. The day ended well with Federer winning his 7th Wimbledon men’s singles title and regaining the No 1 spot.
- Thomas Chacko
We realized by now that in the Ladhak region which has little or no rain, it is the melting snow that creates the problems in crossing the mountain passes. We had therefore decided to stay overnight in Keylong about 100 km away instead of going straight to Manali which was about 220 km from the camp.
So we set of at about 8 am after breakfast at the camp. The road was reasonably good in parts, then bad, then quite good. By about 10.30 we reached the top of Baralacha La, a 4950 metre pass. It was cold up there and rolled up the windows till we descended a few thousand ft. Sometime later we were stuck for about half an hour behind an army convoy that was waiting for an army convoy going in the other direction, to pass!.
We crossed a couple of places where here was water gushing down and across the road but we managed without any problem.
Finally after some good and terrible roads we reached Keylong at about 12.30. There we checked into a hotel and decided to stay put there and leave for Manali early tomorrow morning.
- Thomas Chacko
Woke up early and managed to leave the hotel by 6.15 am, filled up the fuel tank and was on the road to Manali by 6.40 am.
The drive was good all the way till about 9 km from the top of Tangalong La which at 18,259 is the second highest motorable pass in the world. Thereafter it became bad. When we reached the crest of Tangalong La, we found 3 motorcyclists from Holland there. They were very interested in the Nano and one of them took a few pictures. They asked us about the road to Leh and when I told them that it was good after about 9 km they looked relieved and when I asked them what the road was like towards Sarchu, where we planned to stay the night, they said it was horrible.
It was not too bad going down but the road was rough. After we descended a few thousand feet we climbed yet again and reached Kang La a 4848 metre pass. Thereafter we descended to the More Plain a huge sandy plain surrounded by hills with an almost straight road running through it. It could well have been straight out of a Wild West movie.
Initially it was good driving along the road, but after a while we had to make detours at places where they were making culverts. The detours were through soft talcum powder-like sand and I had the Nano slaloming its way through it. On the drive the only experience I had not had was desert driving. Well I got it today and it was both thrilling and an experience I was glad to have. The Nano did not let me down, Finally the road work ceased and the road became a super black top and this continued for quite a few miles.
We stopped at Pang, had some refreshments there and proceeded towards Sarchu. Along the way an Innova coming from the opposite direction stopped and asked me I had had any difficulty with the car. When I said that I had not, he said that I would at Rohtang and that there was rain and even he had got stuck there. He said that I would receive help and that I should not worry.
Just a while later another Innova full of people drew near and the people in it started clapping and one shouted out "Amazing!"
We reached Sarchu and at the check point the guard said he had never seen a Nano and was most interested. Just after the check point we came to abrindge and thereafter there was a hairpin bend full of rocks and with water running down the incline. There was not much of a run up, but I revved the engine and pushed forward. The car shot up the slope and got away without hitting any rock. From there it was just a couple of km to te Goldrop Camp. We drove in to find the place full of motorcycles and riders mostly European. Vikram, the manager there assigned us a tent with two regular beds, plenty of blankets and quilts and a proper toilet and washing facilities.
Sarchu is located at over 4000 metres and we knew the night would be cold so we got out our thermal wear and donned them before we went out of the tent. We made friends with Sunil Sood, who had gone over to the UK as a kid and now spends half the year in India doing what he has a passion for – riding motorcycles and helping others to see India especially the Himalayan regions on motorcycles.
Dinner was provided at the camp and after we had that we went to bed.
- Thomas Chacko
I was in a quandary. Should I try to go to Khardung La, or head towards the Pangong Lake. I then reasoned that the lake would be an incidental outing whereas Khardung La was an integral part of the Adventure Drive I had set out on. Anyway I had seen quite a bit of the lake in 3 Idiots, a movie I went to only because my old friend and classmate Jayant Kripalani had a role in it. So I decided to attempt Khardung La once more. We had an early breakfast and set out shortly after 7.30 am. Now that we knew the road we made very good progress and reached South Pullu by. There our Inner Lne Permit was checked and we were let through. The road deteriorated immediately thereafter and it was a 1st gear climb almost all the way. We decided to take the photographs on our return. Rahul of course did shot some photographs through the window. The Nano gamely pulled up all the way and in less than an hour we were on the top of the Khardung La which at 18,320 ft is the highest motorable pass in the world.
It was a great feeling and I exulted at the thought that I had achieved practically everything I set out to do when I began the trip. There would of course be a few more high passes to traverse on our way to Manali but we had been through Khardung La the highest and Zoji La, the toughest of India’s Himalayan passes.
Te jawans at Khardung La provided hot and tasty payasam and after picking up some souvenirs at the shop there we took photographs of the car and us and then with the sky being overcast left. We did not encounter any rain but tiny wisps of snow kissed the windscreen and Rahul tried to capture that in movie mode.
On my way down from Khardung La, almost everyone who was going up waved out to us, some clapped, some gave a thumbs up and a few stopped to ask how the car had performed and whether the car had bottomed on the road (It had not). One called out "Gaadi aur aap, dono ko dum hai!"
- Thomas Chacko
The Oriental Hotel is run by Dawa Tsering and his sister Punshu, both friendly and helpful. Punshu had told us that if we gave our identity cards by 9 am she would have the Inner Line Permits by 10.30 am or so. We got the cards a little before 11 am and then decided to try and reach Khardung La that day itself instead of the next day as planned. I thought we could use the extra day to go to Pangong Lake locate at an altitude of over 4000 metres.
So we set out at a little past 11 am but after 6 km out of Leh, lost our way. There was hardly anyone about but after a while a man in a Maruti led us to the turnoff we should have taken. There was nothing anywhere in the vicinity to indicate that the right turn (almost hidden) would lead to Khardung La or even the Nebra Valley.
Thereafter we were on a well tarred road and after about 6 km had climbed to 13,200 ft and we had no problem all the way to the check point at South Pullu, 14 km before Khardung La. There we were told that the road was closed to northbound traffic as there was blasting going on for road maintenance. South Pullu is over 15,000 ft and just another 3000 ft would have taken us to the highest point on the highest road in the world. We returned to town and after lunch Rahul went to a cyber café and tried to get some work done.
When we went back to where we had parked the car and found it missing. We checked with a couple of policemen who were nearby and they said it had been towed away. They suggested that we should go to the police chowk and the men there would tell us what to do. So we went there and were told that no parking was allowed on the road. When we told them that there were other cars parked on that stretch of road they said they did not tow away cars which were there for a few minutes only. Ours had been there for more than 3 hours.
Anyway we paid a fine of Rs.200, caught a taxi to the police yard and retrieved the car. Fortunately it had not suffered any damage. That was the highest parking fees I have paid n my life! As Rahul said, an adventure such as ours would not be complete without having the car twoed away!
Thereafter we went back to the hotel where we managed to post some more material for the blog, which had been lagging ever since Srinagar.
- Thomas Chacko
I have now become used to waking up at 5 am. The tough day and late night seemed to play no part in this. Anyway I got ready, woke up Rahul and we left by 7 am.
We filled up at a fuel pump on the road to Leh. There a couple of people asked us where we were coming from and when I said we had come from Srinagar, they were most impressed that a Nano had come through Zoji La.
We stopped for breakfast at Mulbekh. There we met one Arun Jhunjhunwala who had come to Kashmir in connection with the Mughal Road Rally. He asked me whether our Nano had been in Shillong and when I said that I was there on 18th and 19th May, he said that he had seen the car there. He was most impressed that the car had covered so many km in the last two months.
At about 10.30 am we crossed Fatu La, a 13,469 ft pass. It was only when I saw the board that I knew it was so high. Se La, which I had crossed in Arunachal Pradesh was at an altitude of 13,700 ft but there Kunju and I were breathing hard. At Fatu La, Rahul and we were breathing normally.
About 80 km from Leh we were stopped and told that there was a major landslide and that one side of a hill had collapsed. They said that it would take many hours to clear the road. Two days in a row! Rahul went ahead to find out what the matter was. In the meantime a western couple came to me and told me that it would take many hours to clear the road and that they were looking for anyone in a small car that was planning to turn and go back to Lamayuru which we had passed a while ago. I told them that since there was no space in the car – spare wheel, fuel cans and our baggage taking up all available space – I could not consider their request.
After about half an hour, cars were allowed to get ahead of the queue that had built up and when we reached the end, we were directed to go on a mud track to the left. We asked and the soldiers said that the road would take us to Leh. So we also turned left and drove for what seemed a couple of hours through a narrow track. It was constantly uphill for at least 15 km and I had to use 1st almost all the way through. After a while we came to a barren plain ringed by hills and in the distance we could see snow capped mountains. When we crossed the plain we entered a large village from where we were directed to the road to Leh. That was a mountain road, with macadam topping in many places. It took us through very dramatic scenery. I hope the photographs give a better picture.
We then began descending and then came to a fork in the road and we did not know which one to take. A couple of minutes later the cars following us appeared. They too stopped and they decided to take the higher of the two roads. One man got out of one of the cars and started walking down the other road. He then turned and looked at us and asked where we were going. When we said Leh, he said we should take the lower road. He said it was only 4 km to Saspol which was on the highway to Leh. He added that he had told the chaps in the car he was in that the higher road would take them to Likir which was 18 km from the highway. He said he would show us the way if we gave him a lift. I told him to take a look at the rear seats but he said he would squeeze in there and he did.
We dropped him off at the beginning of Saspol and then found our way to the highway where a small man asked us for a lift. It seems he had come there that morning from Leh and because of the landslide there was no bus or even trucks going to Leh. When I indicated the baggage he said he was a small man and that he would fit in there.
After about 3 km the road became good and remained so all the way to Leh – there were of course the deviations but these were not so frequent as in other places. On stretch of road about 30 km before Leh was arrow straight and for the first time since I entered Ladhak clocked over 80 kph. The scenery was something like a lunar landscape and both of us, so used to green foliage around us found clear blue sky and the barren hills, the snow capped mountains and the stark rock strewn ground most enchanting.
We finally found our way to the Oriental, a hotel recommended by Vinoo. We found it a good place and decided that we would not go out and would have dinner there even though it did not usually have Ladhaki food on its menu.
For the first time since I set out on 3rd May, I felt tired. We therefore had an early dinner and retired for the night.
- Thomas Chacko
I got ready, picked up the car from the bungalow and then after breakfast at the hotel, loaded the car and left.
It was good going all the way till a little short of Baltal when we got stuck in traffic. Beltal is a major stepping point for the Amarnath pilgrims and they turn left on the highway which is against the flow of traffic. To add to the confusion there was a long military convoy and that meant we all had to wait till they had regrouped ahead of us. Finally after a couple of hours we were on our way towards Zoji La, a 11649 ft pass considered to be the most difficult of the Himalayan passes.
But a few km later we were stopped by a jawan who said the pass was closed and asked us to wait there. After about 10 minutes he allowed us to proceed. Till Beltal the road had been good but soon after it became a mud track. A few km later we came to where the last truck of te army convoy was. We got out to find what the matter was and were told that there had been a landslide and that till the road was cleared no vehicle could pass. So we waited yet again. We could see JCBs working far away up the road. We could also see the skeletons of trucks that had been claimed by Zoji La.
We got chatting with the soldiers and others. Quite a few became friendly and many wanted to know how the car had performed during the last 60 days. Most of them had serious doubts about the Nano’s ability to make the Zoji La climb. However, one truck driver told me that I would have no problem
All small cars must have a clear run to make it over the top on a steep incline. The Nano depends more on its superb gear ratios than on torque to climb and when one driver cut in ahead of me while I was waiting for the car ahead of me to get over the crest, I had to come back and try again. This time I made it without any difficulty and when I did the crowd there all clapped and cheered.
We had to wait yet again. I chose to wait at a spot from where I would have a clear run and let some of the others in a hurry go past. Finally after having spent about 4 hours there we got the go ahead. I waited for the Eon ahead of me to make it to the top of the climb before I set off. The car went up without any problem but when I reached the crest I found that the Eon had not moved after cresting.
Rahul got out and asked the chaps to move on and I returned to my original starting point and gunned the engine and went up this time without any problem.
Zoji La is about 200 ft less than Se La, but it is indeed a challenge and definitely the toughest I have yet done.
After that we drove through some of the most dramatic scenery it has been my privilege to see. I remember seeing a photograph in the newspaper of trucks passing through a road on which ice towered on both sides up to about 10-15 ft. We passed through that road, but the walls of dirty ice were down to a few feel. It was nevertheless a very impressive sight.
By then it was about 7 pm and when we finally came off the mountain range to a small village we stopped. There we met those who had gone ahead. When they saw the Nano they let out a cheer. Thereafter even those we had not talked to before came up and then asked if they could take photographs! After popping a couple of boiled eggs and having a glass of hot tea we left. There was yet 70-80 km to Kargil and we pressed on. After a while it grew dark and the road became horrible – not as bad as the road to Khajuraho, but near enough. A motorcycle overtook us and Rahul mentioned that it had Kerala plates, so I caught up with it and asked in Malayalam where they were from and the rider replied “Palakkad.” I told himI was from Cochin and then let them carry on.
We finally reached Kargil at about 10 pm but could not find our way to the Army officer’s mess so we checked around and found the Siachen Hotel and since rooms were available we checked in. When we entered the restaurant we found one family group who we had got to know at Zoji La there. A little later the Malayalee couple I had hailed out to and some other roared into the hotel on their Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles. There were three bikes in all and the riders, all working in Bangalore had sent their bikes by train to Delhi and had driven from there.
Dinner over we retired to our room.
- Thomas Chacko
I was to meet a journalist that day and the car would have to be there for the press to take photographs. So I went and collected the car from the bungalow and breakfast over I waited for Mr. Muktar Bava who was to bring the reporter and the photographer to the hotel.
They were a bit late but the interview went off well. The reporter told me that he had the press release but he wanted my story of the drive. So we chatted and he seemed quite impressed with whatever I had to tell him. Thereafter they took some photographs of the car and left.
We had no connectivity through our USB modems but the hotel had WiFi connection in the lounge and we spent time there uploading photographs and sending mail.
Went out for lunch and then later in the afternoon drove to the Shalimar Gardens, the garden built by the Emperor Jehangir for his wife Nur Jehan. It is still a beautiful place but being a Sunday the place was tourists and locals and as in the Nishat Bagh, children and even adults were cavorting in the pools and getting a soaking from the fountains.
On the return drive, we were diverted because a tree had fallen down near the lake. That took us through the cantonment area and when we spotted a fuel bunk we filled the tank and also got some more fuel into the jerry cans. We then went and parked the car and returned to the hotel.
After Rahul had uploaded one more day’s report and photographs we went for dinner. There I overheard a couple of guys talking about the roads in Leh and after hearing them for a while went over and introduced myself and asked for advice on going to Leh. The duo, Philip Mathai, a Malayalee like me and from Kottayam, but brought up in Delhi, had taken part in the Mughal Road Rally as was his friend Lohit was the driver of one of the competing cars. Apparently Lohit had come 3rd in the rally.
Both of them told us that the only difficult stretch of road was the Zoji La pass, which although lower than the Se La pass I had driven over in Arunachal Pradesh was trickier because of the constant seepage of water. They said that I had chosen what was perhaps the best time and that I would have no problems going over the pass which could be very treacherous during the rains. That was a confidence booster after the many conflicting views I had been given in Srinagar.
We left the restaurant by about 11 pm and went back to the hotel.
- Thomas Chacko
With the Amarnath pilgrimage underway, we knew there would be a great deal of traffic enroute to Srinagar. Hill roads are difficult to overtake on when traffic is heavy. So we set out as early as we could and were on the road to the J&K capital by 4.30 am. Many of the pilgrims, too, had the same idea and we saw many taking tea breaks along the way. However, we did not encounter any army convoys for a long time. These convoys usually have 20-25 trucks and they travel at a uniform pace. One cannot overtake the convoys and if they are in the opposite direction, then one has to wait till they pass before attempting an overtaking.
Anyway thanks to the absence of any convoys we managed an average of over 40kph the first hour. As the day progressed the rate came down but we still clocked an overall mileage of over 35 kph. At many places the army was regulating the traffic and every now and again we noticed soldiers carrying mirrors fixed to poles.
Soon after Banihal we reached the Jawahar Tunnel, a 2.5 km long tunnel. It was after entering the tunnel that I discovered how much in love J&K taxi drivers are with their vehicle’s horn. I was doing about 40-45 kph in the tunnel when one fellow started tooting his horn. It is a single lane tunnel and it was impossible to overtake and I was already slightly over the speed limit. Most curious was that after we exited the tunnel and I gave him enough opportunity to overtake, he did not attempt to pass us!
About 70 km before Srinagar we descended to a beautiful valley and I knew we were in the Vale of Kashmir. From there it was almost level ground all the way and although the traffic was heavy we made it to Srinagar by 1 pm. There we checked in to our hotel on the famous Dal Lake. The location and the lovely garden within the hotel are its great features and the rooms are as good as was described in the Lonely Planet. However, the car could not be parked within the compound as the approach road is a broad walkway. The owners told me not to worry about the car and that in the evening it could be parked in their bungalow a little distance away from the hotel.
After catching a short nap we set out to explore Srinagar and went to Nishat Bagh, the Mughal garden built in 1633and by designed by Asaf Khan, brother of Empress Nur Jahan. It is beautifully laid out and commands a great view of the Dal Lake and the mountains of the Pir Panjal range. There did not seem to be any security around and many children were cavorting around in the shallow pools below the fountains. It must have been a serene place in the old days, but with tourists thronging the place, it is now a far cry from the ‘garden of bliss’ it was built to be.
From there we returned to the main city area and from there went to the Jamia Masjid, the huge 1672 mosque. This mosque has a unique style which I have not seen on any other. Its roof under which thousands can pray is supported by 378 pillars each made from a single deodhar tree. On our way back we stopped at the Naqshband Sahib, a beautiful Sufi shrine. Its walls are brick and timber, but unlike the half timbered buildings of Europe the timber is placed horizontally above the bricks not crossways as in Europe.
On our way back from there we came across a fenced off area and realized that behind the aluminum sheets lay the Pir Dastgir Sahib, the Sufi shrine that had caught fire a few days before and had caused so much problems in Kashmir with the shops being closed and curfew imposed till yesterday.
After dropping Rahul off at the hotel I went to Lal Chowk where I picked up a couple of balaclavas and then after parking the car returned to the hotel.
The receptionist at the hotel had told me that a Nano would not make it from Kargil to Leh and that only four wheel drive vehicles could do it. He told me that their taxi drivers would report in the evening and I could talk to them and find out firsthand about road conditions. When I returned I found the owner Zafar and his brothers Aslam and Farouk. Aslam who had travelled many times to Leh via Kargil told me that the road was good al the way except for a patch of about 10-15 km, where it was rough going. After having covered about 1000 km in all of really horrible roads in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, North Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and that stretch of 50 km between Rajula and Una in Gujarat, I was confident that the Nano would handle the road to Leh.
- Thomas Chacko
Although the distance to Jammu was not such a lot, I wanted to get out of the Golden Temple area before the crowds became too difficult. So I got up and once I was ready I went to the parking lot and collected the Nano and returned to the hotel. Rahul had in the meantime managed to bring down our luggage. We stowed them in the car and managed to get away by 6.15 am
Along the way and while still in Punjab, we spotted a Tempo 3 wheeler and managed to take a good photograph.
We made good progress and had breakfast at a dhaba, where I got talking to a young Sikh truck driver. He complained that at the J&K border, trucks are made to go through another route on which an unofficial Rs.200/- is collected.
AT the Punjab side of the border we had to show the car’s registration card and my driver’s licence, but at the J&K side of the border there was no such requirement. I did notice, however, that trucks were being sent to a side road. Was that what the truck driver was talking about, I wondered. We, however, did not have to pay anything other than a toll of Rs.130 for travelling all the way through Jammu to Srinagar.
Before checking into the hotel we went to the J&K Tourism office and bought a map and then went to the highly recommended Falak restaurant in the KC Residency hotel. There we had Bano kebab and Khubani aur Bel ka Kofta, two great local dishes, the latter containing apricots.
Thereafter we went to the Fortune Inn Riviera, rated by Lonely Planet as Jammu’s best hotel and checked in. Later in the evening we went and filled petrol in the car and in the spare jerry cans. The owner of the pump, an elderly Sikh gentleman, told us that we were unlikely to get fuel after Srinagar and advised us to fill up all we could there. He added that Leh had been having a fuel shortage last week and he did not know if it had been resolved. He wished us well and we went back to the hotel. I wondered whether I should buy another jerry can so as to be sure to make it down from Leh to Shimla.
- Thomas Chacko
It had been decided to change the tyres at Amritsar, so I headed to Automobiles Kapoor, the locasl distributor. There they checked out the car thoroughly, adjusted the clutch and brakes and fitted brand new tyres. The old ones had seen over 22,000 km over some seriously bad roads.
While there the service manager suggested that I try out an Amritsari speciality, the stuffed kulcha. It was good and definitely authentic Punjabi fare.
The car was ready by early evening and I went and met up with Rahul who had spent the day photographing the temple, Jalianwala Bagh and other places of interest.
We had dinner in the restaurant of a nearby hotel and then went back to the hotel after parking the Nano in a covered parking lot.
- Thomas Chacko
Because we wanted to make it to the Wagah border we planned to leave as early as we could and managed to do so by 5.50 am. In spite of many trucks we made good progress because they maintained lane discipline. I was on economy mode and tried to keep the speed at a steady 70 kph.
We had booked ourselves in a hotel very close to the Golden Temple. That was a mistake because the traffic around the temple is the most chaotic imaginable. It took us quite a while to thread our way through the traffic. I have only myself to blame for I should have known better.
We checked in and charged off down NH-1 to Wagah where the most well known border point between India and Pakistan is located. There we parked the Nano and went towards the border. There was a huge press of people and the BSF personnel tried their best to segregate the men from the women. It took quite some time to get through the security and go to the border point.
There we found ourselves in a very carnival like atmosphere with people waving Indian flags, patriotic music blaring from huge speakers and thousands of people all eagerly waiting the parade which would take place just before sunset. The concrete steps we were to sit on were really hot and I did wonder if my bottom would get singed.
At first a couple of girls were given large flags and asked to run right up to the border gate. Soon thereafter everyone wanted to emulate that. This went on for a while. Later a few women were asked to dance to the music and when they did other women joined in - including quite a few Westerners – all of whom danced to music including Chak de.
We left before it was all over so that we could escape the chaos that would certainly ensue once everyone started to leave. We returned to the hotel and turned in for the night.
- Thomas Chacko
Woke up in the morning and when I went to load the car discovered that I had a puncture - my first puncture of the trip. The tyres had seen me through the worst roads imaginable and having put over 21000 km in all, it was nothing to complain about. Arun in his usual style took over and although I did some of the work, it was mostly through his efforts that that the tyre was changed.
We finally managed to leave by 5.50 am and soon were trundling down the highway. The route Arun suggested was via Jodhpur and it was a wonderful experience forJodhpur is indeed a lovely city. We tried to take the Nano right up to Umaid Bhavan, once the palace of the reigning monarch and now a luxury hotel but we could not get past the guard at the gate. He suggested that we use another route about 3 km around the hill on which the palace stands. As we turned on to the main road, I saw a unpaved leading up and drove on to it. We soon found ourselves on a knoll from where we had a good view of the palace. After taking a few shots we drove to the magnificent Mehrangahr Fort. It is in my opinion both a work of art and a great citadel – must have been impregnable before the coming of cannons.
On our way out we bought some Mauva Katchori, a sweetmeat which the city is famous for.
From there we proceeded to Bikaner our final destination for the day. There we saw the Junagarh Fort, an impressive fort but nowhere as magnificent as the one in Jodhpur.
From the fort we went to the Hotel Desert Winds, a good hotel recommended by Lonely Planet.
- Thomas Chacko
With Rahul arriving in Udaipur today we decided to leave early enough to make it to the airport to receive him. It was a good drive down the mountain and then from Abu Road on the toll roads all the way to Udaipur.where we found our way to Accal and Arun’s house in Polo Ground. There after lunch Arun and I went to the airport to pick up Rahul, whose flight in spite of it being Air India from Mumbai, was on time.
On our way back Arun asked me to drive through a road with marble sale yards on both sides and told us of how when Makrana, famous for its marble, began to be depleted the business moved to Udaipur. Since Udaipur did not have an established name in the marble trade, the Udaipur marble which was sent to Makrana for cutting was sold as Makrana marble and some say sold to Arab countries as Italian marble.
In the evening Accal, Arcy, Rahul and I went sightseeing to the City Palace. Security is tight and we were not able t9o take the car right up to the lakeside. We tried to go to another point on the lake so as to get a photograph of the Nano with the Lake Palace in the background, but could not find a suitable point. We then returned to the City Palace and parked the car in the parking lot and went towards the lakeside to take photographs there. The security chaps at the lakeside allowed us to bring the Nano close to the City Palace and and take some shots.
While we were there we met a Steven a Frenchman married to an Iyer girl fromPalghat. Steven works for a company in Pune that supplies some of the equipment for Tata cars. He was most interested in my trip and we spent quite some time discussing it. He even asked me whether I would mind if he invited his colleagues to my website!
Thereafter we returned home and tried to get to bed early but that wasn’t to be. Wen you are with cousins you haven’t seen for a while, there’s always a lot to catch up on.
- Thomas Chacko
Since we had to drive only to Mount Abu in Rajasthan, a distance of a little over 200 km we decided to start out after a proper breakfast. Nisha made batata poha, a dish of rice flakes and potato. I was trying that for the first time and I liked it.
Breakfast over, we filled up petrol, checked the air in our tyres and left by about 9.45 am. It was good road all the way and by 12.30 we were at the foothills of the Aravali range. The ghat road of about 25 km was good and we were in Mount Abu by 2 pm.
We drove into Kishengarh House, the erstwhile summer home of the Rajah of Kishengarh. It is a large house set on the side of a hill with a lovely garden. We got a deluxe room in the main building and checked in.
Thereafter we went to see he famous Delwara temples. Since the authorities do not allow cameras and mobile phones inside the complex, we went in separately. I went in and was at once amazed with the intricate marble carvings of lotus flowers, dancers, musicians and other figurines that filled all the temples. I was told that the craftsmen were paid according to the weight of the marble dust collected, which perhaps explains the intricacy of the carvings. The most amazing figurines are the ones on the ceilings. I was reminded of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. These temples date from the 11th century and perhaps because of their mountain fastness escaped notice of the Mughal invaders.
From there we went to Guru Shikar, which at 1722 meters is Rajasthan’s highest point. The views from this mountain top are great and that and the temple there attract hordes of visitors. Today being a Sunday, there was a long procession of cars, jeeps and buses.
We went the full 17 kms right to the top – to the point from where entry is restricted – took quite a few photographs and then drove back to town. There we went to the Nakki Lake and almost went the full circle around it .We were pleased to note that in spite of the monsoons being delayed, there was water in it.
I had not had much sleep the last few days and decided to go to bed early. I think Arcy did too. This was the first time that both occupants of the car was over 60 years of age. Sometime during the day I knew that I had driven more than 18,000 km in the Nano.
- Thomas Chacko
We managed to get ready reasonably early and were off by 6.10 am. We missed the turn to Porbandar and went a few km before we realized that the milestones no longer had Dwarka on them. We asked a passing motorist and were told that we had to turn back. By then we had already covered 27 km and we mentally kicked ourselves for not having checked earlier, as we turned the car around. However, about 3 km later we found a turn off with the sign bearing the word Porbandar and since we had planned to stop at Gandhiji’s birthplace we turned right. It turned out to be the road to Dwarka. Signs on many Indian highways are more for promoting the achievements of the NIA or the PWD than for helping tourists and other travelers.
At Porbandar, although there was no even one sign to indicate where Gandhiji’s ancestral home lay, we had no difficulty finding it. The house is a 22 room mansion with a large marble floored inner courtyard. The place is well maintained and open to the public free of charge. Gandhiji’s father was the equivalent of prime minister to the ruler of Porbander and therefore a wealthy man. It is truly inspiring that someone born to such a family could adopt the starkly simple lifestyle that Gandhiji from the time he began to lead India’s freedom movement.
From there we drove on towards Dwarka, arguably India’s westernmost town and famous for its Dwarkadesh Mandir. From about 30 km before Dwarka there was not a sign of habitation nor was there anyone walking on the road – a common sight in the USA, but a strange one in India. All we could see were some large salt pans. Soon we saw a sign of Tata Chemicals indicating that Salt City, Mithapur was a few kms beyond Dwarka.
Dwarka itself was a disappointment. Dirty and chaotic and the temple set amidst a cluster of shops and other buildings, making photographs of the car and the temple in the same frame impossible. I have often wondered why all kinds of constructions are allowed to come up right up to the walls of many important Hindu temples.
From there we drove to Jamnagar, bypassed Rajkot and reached Ahmedabad by about 6 pm. When we reached there I saw that we had covered 701 km that day and that the car had crossed 21,000 km. Along the way when stopped to fill up petrol I found that we had achieved almost 25 kpl in spite of using the air-conditioner throughout that leg.
Later that evening Shaji and Nisha took us to the Sarkej Roza, a complex containing a very elegant yet simple 15th century mosque. Its huge tank was now dry, was beyond cleaned up and it was expected that after the monsoons, it would become a showpiece.
From the Roza we went to the Rajput Club, a club with practically every facility that one could expect from a property that extended to more than 8 acres and spent some time there.
- Thomas Chacko
It had been a late night. By the time I finished posting the reports and photographs, it was midnight. So I decided to leave later than planned and did not set the alarm for 5 am as usual. However, I am now so used to getting up early that I woke up at 5 am without the wake up call.
Nisha had got up by then and, against our protests, was busy preparing food for us to take with us. I managed to send off a few emails and once Arcy was ready, we left. It must have been about 6.30 Nisha’s home is just a road away from the highway and once we got on that it was great going all the way to Bhavnagar.
There was one disappointment though. We had planned to visit Lothal, a Bronze Age port. It was of the same vintage as Mohenjodaro and that ancient port was something we were looking forward to seeing. Unfortunately when we found the turn off, we were told by the locals that it was closed on Thursdays. That was indeed unfortunate.
It is indeed such a shame that our babus cannot ensure that places such as these are kept open every day on the week. These same fellows have no qualms about keeping their official drivers on overtime to meet their personal requirements. Surely they can easily arrange to have people on staggered duty so that the citizens can see for themselves the wonders that our country has to offer.
We then tried to find the Black Buck National Park but by the time we got directions, we found that we had overshot the turn off by about 15 km. That would have meant at least 40 km more so we left without turning. There were no signs anywhere about this national park.
At Bhavnagar, we were misdirected – once by an auto-rickshaw driver – and we lost a bit of time. After Bhavnagar, the road passed through many small towns and there were the inevitable speed-breakers one after the other that slowed down traffic.
Along the way we spotted a signboard stating that Alang was 10 km top the left. Alang is the largest ship breaking yard in the world and I thought I should go and see for myself what it was like. About 3 km before the yard we saw shops lining the road each selling a different item ranging from lifeboats, microwaves, sofa sets, chandeliers – literally everything that is part of a ship. We tried to enter the ship breaking yard, but security would not allow us in – they said only senior management could sanction that. So we left, but we had a good idea of what the business was like.
We made good progress till Rajula. After that the road became bad and after a while rivaled the horrible road we had experienced between Sagar and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh. This continued for about 30 km at the very least and all the way to Una. Lonely Planet had warned that the road to Diu was abysmal, but since it was a 2011 edition, we thought that there would perhaps have been some improvements. Obviously nothing had been done in the last one year and Gujarat, we now know, has its share of horrible roads.
After Una the road improved and in about 16 km came to Diu the old Portuguese settlement, now part of the Union Territory of Daman and Diu. I had described the Diu Fort in my book Without a City Wall. It was one of the few places mentioned in it that I had not been to and I wanted to see for myself whether my description, based on that of travelers of those days, was accurate. After spending some time there I was satisfied that my description was more or less right.
Since it was only about 4 pm we decided to press on to Somnath and visit the famous temple that had been razed to the ground no less than seven times, the last two occasions by Mohammed of Ghazni and Aurangzeb. The authorities there don’t allow photographs to be taken except from quite a distance. Since the camera has a 42X zoom, I managed to get one which came out reasonably well given the fading light. Thereafter we went back to the hotel and went to bed rather early.
- Thomas Chacko
Woke up early and managed to leave by 5.30 am. It was sad bidding Miriam goodbye for she would have gone back to Malaysia by the time I got back to Cochin towards the end of July. My sister Arcy, also like me a senior citizen and a retired professor from NIFT, Mumbai had wanted to accompany me till Udaipur. This was getting to be a kind of bonding with the immediate family.
It was a smooth ride all the way out of town, with the many flyovers making it an easy matter.
About 140 km from Mumbai we saw a sign for Udwada and Arcy said that Udwada was one of the earliest Parsi settlements in India. So we took a 7 km detour and went to the town. There we found our way to the fire temple but on learning that photographs of the temple was not something that would be appreciated, left after taking some photographs of the buildings in the area.
Initially the traffic was quite heavy and we had to thread our way through it, but after a while it became easy to drive through it.
We made good time and by 3.30 reached Ahmedabad and went straightway to my niece Nisha’s place.
There after a bath I went to the CCD and met with journalists from a few papers. The interviews went off well and I left with everyone wishing me a safe and successful journey.
Thereafter Nisha and her husband Shaji, took us on a tour of the city. We went to the IIM and saw the place that American architect Luis Kahn had created. We also went to the school of architecture and saw the Gufa created by MF Hussain and B.V. Doshi, the school’s first director.
- Thomas Chacko
We woke up early and managed to leave the Ginger by 5.15 am. It was raining a bit so I did not switch on the air-conditioner. The weather continued to remain cool for a long time and because of the slightly wet road I keep the car at a steady 70 kph.
The signage was good and in English, Hindi and Konkani all the way to the Maharashtra border. Thereafter there was very little signage in English, which was strange. The point of having such signage is to inform travelers on the road not to exhibit some convoluted idea of nationalism or should I say jingoism.
The Nano ran beautifully and by the time we reached Chiplun, we knew we needed to fill fuel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had achieved the magic figure of slightly over 25 kpl, the first time I had got that kind of mileage. By then it had got warm so we switched on the air conditioner and drove all the way to Mumbai. At Khargar we stopped at Arcy’s place and after a bath left for Kunju’s apartment in Parel.
At Kunju’s place, his daughter Maya, who I had not met for a few years, with her studying at UPenn in the US for the last few years, was there as were others in the immediate family. Shammi my cousin was down from Singapore. Altogether it was a good reunion.
It was quite late by the time we went to sleep.
- Thomas Chacko
Not having been to a church service ever since I started on my trip on 3rd May, we decided to leave Cochin after attending the morning worship service at the Immanuel Church. Many of the members had been following my journey across India through my website or by simply calling up Geetha once she had returned from the north east. Almost everyone wanted to know more about the trip and I spent considerable time after church telling the interested ones greater details about the trip.
By 10 we were at my cousin Annie’s place for breakfast and after going to Tima’s place were on the road to Kannur by 11.30 am.
After a while it began to pour – the monsoon had finally landed in Kerala. It being a Sunday there were very few trucks on the highway and because of the rain most of the bikers were off, too. That allowed us to make good progress.
We crossed the Bharatapuzha, the river that once marked the boundary of Cochin State and the Madras Presidency.
After Kozhikode, reduced by the British to Calicut, we saw a sign that read Kunjali Marikkar Memorial. Kunjali was the admiral of the Zamorin’s navy in the 1500s and many were the successful naval battles he had fought against the Portuguese. Kunjali had featured in my book Without a City Wall and I wanted to see for myself what his house was like. So we made the detour and after looking over the wall, we took some photographs and left.
We entered Kannur and found our way to the Royal Omars Hotel, where after dinner we went to sleep.
- Thomas Chacko
I woke up and went downstairs to collect the newspapers. The Hindu carried an article about me and, but it was an old one – from my interview in Hyderabad. A press meet had been arranged at the Taj Gateway at 11.30 am and got ready to go there.
Concorde Motors where I had given the Nano for service had been request to send the car after service to the Taj, so Venu, who is a fellow member of the Wednesday Club who had arranged the press meet came to pick me up.
Altogether 9 newspapers were represented and the meetings went off well.
Thereafter I went home and after meeting close friends and neighbours including Michael Dominic, went over to niece Sneha’s place for a dinner to which all our near relatives in Cochin had been invited. Everyone wanted to know about the trip and all were very excited about what I had to say.
- Thomas Chacko
Although we knew we could be in Cochin by early evening, I wanted to give the car for service and get it back in time for the press conference on Saturday when the journalists would certainly want to take photographs of the car. So we woke up at 5 am and managed to get out of Spice Village by 6.10 am.
And after a few km we crossed back into Tamil Nadu.
It was a smooth drive all the way, with just a few patches where the road was being repaired and we made it to Munnar by about 10.30 am. We would have made it earlier, had there been a visible signage for the turn to Munnar – a left U turn partly hidden by a large tree.
It was great going up the hill and negotiating the 17 hairpin bends and seeing the plains of Tamil Nadu from heights upward of 3000 ft.
When we entered Kerala again, the scenery changed. The foliage was thicker and greener that that in Tamil Nadu, which loses out on rain being in the rain shadow. After a few km we entered tea country and arguably the most picturesque of plantation territory in the country. Our progress was impeded a bit by the constant stops for photographs.
We passed through Munnar town without stopping and proceeded past Adimali to the Farmyard, my regular stop for tea and snacks on my trips to Munnar. After a refreshing masala tea there, we drove on to Muvattupuzha where Javeen had arranged an army surplus jerry can. Our plastic jerry can was not airtight – none of these are – and the slight smell of petrol very irritating. The problem was that most of the shops were closed – a vyapari bandh, I guess – and so we had difficulty locating the place. Finally we located it and since the owner was expecting us we got a 20 litre metal jerry can for Rs.1500/- It was almost 3 pm when we reached home and to a hearty home cooked meal.
Thereafter I managed to get in touch with Concorde Motors and took the Nano there for service. By then I had covered over 14500 km and the car had clocked 17724 km. Concorde Motors assured me that the car would be serviced and ready in time for the press meet at the Taj Gateway at around noon and that they would deliver the car there.
I returned home and found cousin Racha waiting to meet me.
Thereafter I walked over to the Yacht Club where I hoped to meet up with my friends in the Kochi Reading Group. Unfortunately the KRG had held their monthly meeting on Thursday instead of the usual Friday, so I returned home.
Later we met up with Ajoy, my oldest friend and had dinner at the Yacht Club.
- Thomas Chacko
I woke up to find the Malayala Manorama open on page 4 which bore my photograph and an article featuring me. The journalist had got most of the facts correct, except for my having met Suresh Joseph during my days at Harrisons Malayalam.
We left after breakfast and almost as we were exiting Kottayam I received a call. It turned out to be from Mathachen, my old friend from Calcutta who had taught me the art of driving fast and with whom I had done a few motor rallies. Mathachen had immigrated to the US a few years ago and he and his wife Ramani had come down to Kottayam a few days before on a visit. When he opened the paper he saw my photograph and the article and knew that I was in Kottayam and he called hoping to catch me before I left. So we went to his sister’s house to meet them. It was great being together and reliving some of our long distance driving experiences.
We spent some time there and left for Thekkady. Enroute we stopped to fill petrol and the owner on seeing the car came out of his office and asked me if this was the same car that was featured in the Malayala Manorama. When I said it was he was very pleased and shook my hand and wished me well. Later we were tailed by a Tata Manza which overtook me and then the 2 guys in it waved me down. They turned out to be from a local Tata distributor and had seen the Manorama article and wanted to take photographs of the car and me. Along the way we had people waving out to us from cars and from the roadside.
Soon after that Avira, the incumbent president of the Cochin Yacht Club called up. He was in his family home which was just a couple of kms off our route. He asked me to call him when we reached Ponkunnam so that he could come and meet us. We did that and at Mundakayam we met up with Avira and his wife Renu. It was good meeting them on their turf.
We reached Spice Village, CGH Earth’s luxury resort in time for lunch. There we were received with great enthusiasm and the General Manager insisted on having a photograph taken of the car with almost the entire staff of Spice Village.
Later we were taken on a tour of the place. CGH Earth has pioneered the concept of food miles in India. They grow their own vegetables and mushrooms and source everything they use from within a radius of 50 miles. They also practice vermiculture and composting. The food is therefore both organic and fresh.
In between we went to Periyar Game Sanctuary. Unfortunately they do not allow cars to go to the lake and so we could not get a shot of the Nano with the lake in the background. With the monsoon having been delayed, the lake was also down to half its size.
We returned to Spice Village and after dinner went to our cottage and retired for the night.
- Thomas Chacko
Although we had planned to take things easy and start later in the morning, use3d as I now have been to early starts, I woke up at 5 am and there being nothing to do got ready, woke up Miriam and after she was set to go, we left the Ginger at 6.10 am and after filling up at a petrol station, drove through MC Road to Kodumon, Geetha’s ancestral home which we reached shortly before 8 am. It was great catching up with Koshyappappen, who has always been a wonderful raconteur.
Later I was interviewed by the local correspondent of Mangalam, a leading Malayalam newspaper. After breakfast we left for Kottayam.
When we reached Kottayam we decided to go to Kumarakom and see if we could take the car right up to my father’s ancestral home. In the old days our home was surrounded on three sides by water – a large canal in front, and two on either side. Most families in Kumarakom maintained a boat of some kind or other. Our family had a motor boat and we as children loved to hide in it and escape notice by our grandfather, who was petrified that one or the other of his grandchildren, few of whom knew swimming, would fall into the water.
From there we went to my mother’s ancestral home in Kottayam, where after a couple of hours I was interviewed by a correspondent from Malayala Manorama who had been sent by Jacob Mathew one of the Managing Directors of the newspaper.
My nephew Javeen, who owns the Kottayam distributorship of Enfield motorcycles, and his wife Anu came over to greet me. Javeen is a motor sports enthusiast and also a designer of motorcycles. He has been winning the Annual design competition organized by Enfield for the last two years. Enfield now commissions him to produce limited editions of their bikes. Javeen is also the first among my relatives to buy a Nano and my cousin Sajan, who has just purchased one, is the second.
After dinner I managed to get some reporting done and will send it before I go to sleep.
- Thomas Chacko
We did not know how long we would take to reach Kanyakumari so we decided to start out early and managed to do so at 5.15 am. Early starts make for good progress and we covered the first 200 km in about 3 hours.
Near Thuthukudy, which the British somehow twisted to Tuticorin, we passed a few of the many salt farms for which the area is well known. We bypassed that busy port but thereafter found ourselves going towards Thiruchendur instead of Thirunelveli. I think that mistake, if you could call it that, saved us some time as the overall distance was finally shorter than we had thought.
At Kanyakumari, which we reached by 11 am, we found that we could not take the car anywhere near the water and so decided to go to a nice looking church we had seen a km or so back that seemed to be on proceeding through a road on the side of the chon the side church. We followed it and found ourselves by the seaside near a fishermen’s colony. Just beyond we could see the Vivekananda Rock and the statue of the sage Agasthya. It was a great sight and we were able to take some really good shots.
From Kanyakumari we went past the Sucheedram temple, famous for its musical pillars on which one can play the scale thumping on them. Somehow we missed the turn off and it was only after we had reached Nagercoil that we realized that we had missed it. Since I had been there a few times, we decided to press on to Padmanabhapuram to see the lovely palace of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. The palace is unique in that the 26 acres of the palace and its grounds belong to Kerala but is located in Tamil Nadu, about 25 km from the Kerala border. Another incongruity is that it is the Kerala Police that provide security for the palace. Unfortunately we could get in as the authorities do not issue tickets between 1 pm and 2 pm, although the palace itself is open to the public during that time! One can never really fathom the workings of a bureaucrat’s mind! I had visited the palace a few years ago, but Miriam had not. It was just past 1pm when we reached there and Miriam did not want to hang about there for an hour in the heat, so we left.
Between Kanyakumari and Nagarcoil we saw the small mountains that mark the southern end of the Western Ghats and thought of how we would be traversing its entire length by the time we reached Mumbai on the 21st.
As we entered Trivandrum we realized that we would be going past the Sree Padmanabha Temple which had created a great deal of controversy when its vaults were opened under orders of the Supreme Court. Even today no one is quite sure what the value of its contents is, although many estimates put it at over Rs.100,000 crores! We managed to get a photograph of the Nano in front of the temple premises.
Thereafter we drove to the Ginger and after a short rest went visiting cousins Jyothis, Mohan and Karuna. We had dinner with Karuna and returned to the hotel.
The car had by then covered 17096 km of which I had driven 13880, the car having started from Mumbai on 3rd with the odometer showing 3216 km.
- Thomas Chacko
We started out at 5.40 am and were led out of the city by Dinu, GM of Maison Perumal, who so kindly and against our protests arrived early at the hotel to see us off.
The first two hundred km was 4 lane, except for the first 20 km or so on which stretch were two railway crossings and we were held up at both. Even so we made good time. Dinu told us that after Trichy we were unlikely to find any decent place for lunch and that he had called up the GM of Vilasom, a CGH Earth property near Karaikudi and had told him to expect us for an early lunch.
Vilasom is a Chettiar mansion built in the heydays of the Chettiars in Chettinad. Chettinad was once full of such mansions and with many of the Chettiars having extensive business in what was Burma, all the doors and windows are of mature teak and beautifully carved and the smooth walls made of lime and polished with egg white. Many of these mansions are in a state of disrepair, but a few like Vilasom and the Chettinad Palace, belonging to Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s family are maintained as in the days of yore.
The GM there turned out to be Johny Peter who I had known from the days when I was a regular at lunch at CGH Earth’s hotel on Willingdon Island. He gave us a right royal reception complete with a Chettinad shawl and then after leading us through the property, gave us a splendid lunch.
Thereafter we went past a few of the old mansions, including the Chettinad Palace, and then went on our way to Rameshwaram.
We crossed the Pambam bridge, which was built after the cyclone – I am certain it was a tsunami, something that was unheard of at the time – of 1964, destroyed the old bridge. The drive to the bridge reminded me of the Florida Keys with the sea on both sides of the road.
We checked into our hotel, the Queen Palace, and soon thereafter left for Dhanuskodi, a once thriving town that was literally wiped off the map in 1964. What is left is 10 km stretch of sandy waste that can be crossed only on 4WD or trucks. Left standing are the walls and façade of a stone church and some pillars that supported the water tanks of the railway station.
The jeep the hotel organized for us was an ancient one and it was interesting to see the driver attaching a contraption to the front wheel to convert it from 2WD to 4WD. He then took us on a dune buggy like ride at the end of which we reached the start of what is called Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu. On one side you have the Gulf of Mannar and on the other the Palk Bay. Apparently at night one can see the lights of Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka, which is only 18 km away.
After that we returned to the hotel, picked up the car and drive to the Rameshwaram Temple. We returned via the beach, had dinner and retired fr the night
- Thomas Chacko
With Pondicherry being just about 3 hours away, we decided to take things easy. After breakfast we drove back into town and drove past Fort St George, San Thome Cathedral and the Marina Beach and by about 10.30 were on the East Coast Road leading to Pondicherry.
Along the way we stopped at Mahabalipuram, visited the shore temple, the last one left of the seven that are believed to have been swallowed up by the encroaching sea. They say that the ruins of many temples are now on the sea bed.
We reached Pondicherry by about 1 pm and found our way to the Maison Perumal, an old mansion beautifully restored and run as a hotel run by CGH Earth. Jose Dominic, Managing Director of CGH Earth whom I have known for more than three decades and a hotel run by CGH Earth his brother Michael, my next door neighbor, had invited me to stay at all their resorts and hotels on my route and I had decided to take up their very kind offer and stay in some their properties on my route.
We were received very graciously by Dinu the manager and the staff. After checking in we had lunch which lived up to CGH Earth’s reputation for serving the best food wherever there properties are located. It was quite hot so we stayed in our room till about 5 pm and then went out to see the town. Miriam and I had been to Pondicherry before so we just went around the old French Quarter and been there before the promenade. Thereafter we took a drive to Auroville, although we knew that we would not be allowed in as the place is shut to visitors after 1.30 pm on Sundays. Miriam had been to Auroiville so it was more to satisfy my desire to see where the place was located that we went there.
We returned to the Maison Perumal and after a splendid dinner retired early knowing that we had a long day ahead of us.
- Thomas Chacko
Although we had decided on a late start, I woke up at 6 am and, having time on my hands, decided to update my reports.
We decided to have breakfast at the Sidewalk, an establishment close to Rahul’s home. After a heart breakfast we set off for Chennai.
The drive was, as on every day after leaving Kolkata, very smooth, very predictable, very smooth but very, very boring.
We stopped at a genuine dhaba run by a turbaned Sikh and enjoyed some good and piping hot food. The traffic was not too heavy till Sriperumbudur. Thereafter the road was filled with large buses taking people to and from their workplace.
As in Bangalore, we crawled for the last few kms and eventually found our way to cousin Aneeta’s apartment in Annanagar. Her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were down from Bangalore and so we got to meet them too. Naveen, another nephew, joined us after dinner and then led us all the way to the Tidal Park, where the Ginger Hotel was located. We checked in and stayed the night there.
- Thomas Chacko
We managed to leave the Fortune Hotel by 6 am and from there went to the Charminar via the Husaini Sagar and, after taking some photographs, left for Bangalore by 6.30 am.
As expected the road was superb all the way and in spite of not going really fast, was able to maintain an average of over 60 kph. I had travelled twice before on this road – in 1982 and 1989 but in the opposite direction. In those days it was not a double road but with very little traffic, we had made very good time.
When we stopped to refuel we decided to have breakfast at the restaurant adjoining the pump – the first time that I actually stopped for breakfast since I began my trip on 3rd May. Later we stopped for lunch, too.
It is not very interesting to drive on a tolled road, but after the horrendous roads we encountered in North Bengal and in the north east, I was content to go into ‘Sunday Drive’ mode. We eventually made it to the Bangalore’s new airport area by about 3 pm. With a 4.30 pm appointment with Rohini Mundaje from the Prajvani, the leading Kannada newspaper, we thought we had time in hand, but the traffic literally crawled for the last 26 km and we just about made it in time to the Gateway Hotel, where I was to meet her.
Rohini had interviewed me over the telephone soon after I began my trip and so it was as if we knew each other, but it was good seeing her in person. The interview went off very well and thereafter we went to Rahul’s office in Koramangala, picked him up and went to his home which too is in Koramangala. There we were joined by Namitha and Elsa, our neighbours in Cochin who now work in Bangalore.
After dinner we went over to my cousin Tommy’s place in Defence Colony, Indiranagar. I had missed attending his daughter Ayesha’s wedding on 1st June and wanted to meet the family. We returned home by 11 pm.
- Thomas Chacko
We managed an early start and after a few wrong turns, we were on the long bridge over the Godavari river. There was quite a bit of water in the river and it was a splendid sight.
The drive to Hyderabad from Rajahmundry was on a good state highway and was shorter than the one through Vijayawada, a route we had taken in 1989. In those days we had been told not to go on the road to Rajahmundry as the road was very bad. Over the years there had been obvious improvement and although there were a few bad patches, it was smooth almost all the way. The GPS kept leading us towards the other road but we ignored it till we got on to the final stretch when it brought us right to the Fortune Select Manohar hotel where we had a confirmed booking.
Along the way we saw a tank for which the Deccan has long been famous. These tanks were used for storing water for the rest of the year. Although the water level was low, we could see that when full it must be a great sight.
At the Fortune Simon Mathews, my mentor, guide and fellow company secretary, was waiting with his daughter Sheela. It was wonderful to meet him after so long and we caught up on old times over lunch. From 3.30 pm till about 6.30 pm I met up with many journalists from Eenaadu, the leading Telegu daily, the Indian Express, the Hindu and some other publications.
By the time they finished, my old friend Hansraj arrived to take us to his home. It was good meeting him and his family and spending some quality time with them. We also got to eat some good home cooked food. We did not stay too long there and were back in the hotel by 10 pm.
- Thomas Chacko
In spite of the late return the night before, we were able top make an early start and left the Ginger by 6.15 am.
I had been told by the journalist from Odisha Post that the article on me would come out today. So when I spotted a newagent, I went over and bought a copy. Although there were some mistakes, it was a well done article.
The dive was good all the way to Vizag, except for a bottleneck at Khurda. After Khurda we came to the Chilka Lake. It always evokes a sense of awe among those who visit it.
At Vizag we spotted a mall and went in. There we had some food and I bought a pair of sandals. From there we went to the beach area. In the 1950s my father’s brother was chief accountant of the Vizag Port and I well remember his bungalow on road across from the channel and the Dolphin’s Head and of staying there for a few days in 1956. Everything has changed and the bungalows have since been pulled down. The place has lost its beautiful image and there are a lot of structures to mar the once pristine beauty of the entrance to the harbor.
We took a few photographs and then at about 4 pm we headed out to Rajahmundry more than 200 km away and reached there before 8 pm.
- Thomas Chacko
We woke up early in order to get out of town before the traffic became its usual Kolkata chaos and by 5.20 were well on our way.
It was very different having Miriam along in place of Kunju. She kept up a constant and interesting chatter and having been away from India for about 3 months to had lots to talk about. The run to Cuttack was smooth barring for a half hour hold up along the way. At Cuttack we went to the Federal Bank. There we were received by the manager and staff with a lot of warmth. From there we went to Bhubaneshwar where we checked into the Ginger. I was pleased and relieved to learn from reception that the driving gloves I had inadvertently left behind in the Ginger at Agartala had been received.
The manager of Federal Bank called me and then he and another colleague came by. They took me to the Bhubaneshwar branch where I was felicitated for the second time that day. They dropped me back to the Ginger in time for my press meet.
Altogether 3 persons came by, one from the Odiya Post and another from Sambad. The interviews went off well and were over by 5.45 pm.
Miriam has been to Konark as a young girl but had no recollection of it. So we did a quick dash down and saw the sun temple lit up for the night. There were quite a few people there and we took a few photographs. I had been to the temple a couple of times before, but this was the first time I was there after dark.
From there we went to Puri and near the Lord Jagannath temple and saw the base along with wheels of all the three chariots used for the famous car festival, when thousands of devotees would view for the privilege of pulling these huge chariots. In the old days many devotees would kill themselves by hurling themselves under the wheels of the chariot, a practice which brought the word juggernaut into regular use in the English language. We had dinner in a restaurant well recommended by Lonely Planet. After that we returned, reaching the Ginger after midnight.
- Thomas Chacko
For the first time in a month, I woke up late after enjoying about 8 hours of sleep. It was a good break from the routine of waking early, packing the car and taking off in the wee hours of the day. After a having a hot cup of coffee on the lawn – the Johns have this wonderful 4000 sq. ft. flat on the ground floor of a fairly new building in a very good part of Kolkata, complete with a 3000 sq. ft. lawn, to which only they have access – I went in and got ready. By this time my cousin Gitty (officially Dr. Mathew John) had returned from Kalimpong where he goes once a month for conducting surgery in a hospital there.
A leisurely breakfast over, I took the car to the Tata Motors distributor KB Motors’ service workshop in Park Circus, very close to my old school. After the pounding it had taken in the north east, I thought I should have the suspension checked. We had also encountered a great deal of dust along the way, so I wanted the filters cleaned.
I used the time waiting for the car to be checked and cleaned by updating my reports and writing an article about the north east that I had promised to send to Mr. PP Singh of the Seven Sisters, a newspaper from Guwahati.
The staff of the distributor was embarking on a march to Park Circus, a point in the city where 7 roads meet, to create awareness about global warming and general environmental awareness. They requested me to make a short speech about my trip, the environment and also to cut a ribbon to inaugurate their march. Most of them seemed to appreciate the impact of my trip.
By the time they went off I was told that there was no damage to the underside of the car and that it would be ready once it was washed.
I got the car and went and picked up Miriam, who had landed from Malaysia on the 2nd from her friend Shailaja’s place and to the Federal Bank to meet the zonal manager who had expressed great interest in my trip and wanted to meet me.
That over we went to the wanted to the PM John’s place. Kunju left after dinner for Singapore by the night flight.
- Thomas Chacko
Knowing that we had a long day ahead of us we planned to leave as early as possible. I woke up to the realization that the counter staff at the reception had not sent my driver’s license to the room as promised. We had settled the bill the night before because the staff told us that there would be no one at the counter at 5 am. Anyway I got ready, asked Kunju to get started on his morning ablutions and went down and managed to rouse the security guard who managed to open the drawer, rummaged in it and found the card.
We managed to leave by 5.15 am. The road out of Siliguri was superb all the way to Dhalkhola about 130 km away and we clocked well over 60 kmph. After Dhalkhola the road deteriorated all the way to Malda, where we stopped for brunch at a new hotel, the Golden Park.
A few km out of Malda we ran into the now familiar line of hundreds of trucks. We soon spotted an empty truck pulling out and followed him for almost a km before having to pull over to the right side of the road to let trucks coming from the opposite direction through. While we were waiting there, a truck driver who was in the long line of trucks on the left side, called out to us and said that we should try and cut through the line and get to the left side and drive through. He offered to let us through if the line moved, adding that he was fully loaded and had to wait in line, but saw no reason why we should get stuck there. A short while later, we spotted a small break in the line and cut trough to the other side of the road and with the high clearance offered by the Nano, made a lot of progress. Finally we came to a point where we could move no further and had to get back in line. After about half an hour we were able to move and soon we were on the highway.
Indian truck drivers India have a really tough life. Without any of the comforts that we have now got used to, they drive thousands of miles each year, stopping by dhabas, fuel stations and often the wayside. They drive through all kinds of weather and on all types of terrain and for long hours and do what I think is a great job, given the weather and road conditions. There are, of course, the inevitable bad apples, but the vast majority ever helpful to fellow travelers, particularly those driving private vehicles.
The 4 lane work was in progress on this stretch with one double lane complete in many places. So we were able to make progress. Having driven to Malda from Kolkata on the 11th I was conscious of the horrible road that awaited us. Mahesh, with whom I had stayed in Kolkata called up and told us that we could avoid that route by turning right at Moregram and driving through to Panagarh. We did that and although the first 15 km was not good, we were soon on a good state highway and after the traffic tangle at Panagarh got on to NH-2, part of which was on the old Grand Trunk Road, the oldest road in India, dating back to the time of Sher Shah Suri. After Burdwan we merged with the Durgapur Express Highway and thereafter we were able to really speed up.
We finally reached our uncle’s house in Burdwan Road by about 9.30 pm after covering over 700 km – the maximum I have ever driven in a single day – not just on this trip. It was great being there in the home of the PM Johns - in our home away from home - and after a few weeks on the road, to eat home cooked food.
The car has clocked over 13,000 km. I have now driven over 10,000 of that.
- Thomas Chacko
Having checked in so late, we did not wake up till 7 am and it was 8.45 by the time we set off. As expected we ran into traffic after crossing the Brahmaputra and by 10 am had covered only about 20 km. Thereafter the road improved and we were able to maintain good speed. This continued all the way to the Bengal border.
Once we crossed into Bengal we could see the road deteriorating. However, a few kilometers into Bengal we came to a toll road and I thought to myself that the road would improve thereafter. When we came to the toll booth, the attendant waved us on. We were behind a truck and was about to pull out when a man tapped the glass on the window. When I asked him what he wanted he told me that it was for the toll. I asked him how much and he looked across to a chap who was sitting on a plastic chair and asked him and then told me that it would be Rs.100. I took out my wallet and then asked him for the receipt. He then said it was only Rs.50 without receipt. When I insisted on a receipt, he said that there was no receipt for Rs.100. He then said that Rs.20 would suffice. I then put the car and drove off. Apparently there was no charge for cars and private vehicles and these guys were operating a small scam right under the nose of the official toll operator – with the fellows consent, I am sure.
The toll turned out to be for the Gangadhar Bridge, not for a long stretch of road. Soon the road became really bad and I had to weave all over the road to negotiate my way through the troughs and crests that made the road. Bad though it was, the stretch was manageable. A few km later we came to what we discovered was a bypass. After a while, it deteriorated so badly that we wondered whether we would be able to get across. There were a couple of trucks behind us and I let them pass before attempting to negotiate the deep ruts in the road. The trucks made it through easily enough, but for us it was about 5 km of great anxiety as we made our way gingerly through the quagmire of a road.
We were still palling on reaching Malda. It would be very late, but it would ensure that Kunju could catch a flight to Mumbai so that he could fly from there to Singapore, where he had to be to take his daughter Maya for getting her Singapore citizenship before she goes back to the US to join classes at UPenn. However, a few km before Siliguri, we were caught up in a traffic snarl. A truck had broken down on a narrow stretch of road and we had to wait a while before we could move. That and the bad road put paid to our plans for reaching Malda. So when the traffic cleared we decided to stay the night in Siliguri and when on entering the town we found a decent looking hotel – it turned out to have everything we required - we checked in, planning to make an early start tomorrow. Saw the Nadal –vs- Schwantz French Open match and went to sleep.
- Thomas Chacko
I looked out of the window and saw that it was raining. Not a good start to the day, I thought, but then we were heading into the monsoons and such a light rain should not dampen my spirits so we packed up our stuff and left by around 6.15 am.
The day before, we had been told that we would not be allowed to go through the forest area before 8 am. At the hotel someone told us that we would be allowed from 7 am. So we decided to try and reach there sometime after 7 am and wait till the road opens. We reached the check post by about 7.20 am and had to wait till shortly after 8 am when the guards received a call that the road was clear. They then let us through. It was good that we went there early because we were almost at the head of the queue and so did not get stuck in the midst of the truck traffic.
The light rain followed us all the way through Tripura and we had no problem till we reached Kleinahat. There we got stuck in traffic. I thought initially that there must have been an accident. I later realized that this was a regular feature in this area. Long lines of truck were parked on the side of the road and that is the sole reason for these traffic snarls. We finally started moving more than an hour later! By then it was almost night and that made overtaking the long convoys of trucks even more difficult. It is not easy making good progress on a strange ghat road in the dark. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I latched on to a fast moving car of truck and made some good progress.
That however was negated by yet more hold ups in the small towns we passed through till Shillong, which we reached shortly after 9 pm. Guwahati was our target and so after a dinner of momos and sweet corn chicken soup we pressed on.
Shillong always has traffic snarls – there is no way to get to Guwahati from Aizawl or Agartala, except through that city. However, after Shillong the road became broader, but the truck continued to dominate the road.
We finally made it to the Ginger at about 1 am. There we checked in and dropped off to a good night’s sleep.
- Thomas Chacko
We knew that today would be a day of rest with the Marxists who have been in power in Tripura for many years, having joined the BJP in the dawn to dusk bandh against the steep hike in the price of petrol. When will Indian political parties realize that the strikes that worked well in the days of the British Raj have no place in an independent country! Before Independence our strikes impacted a foreign ruler and it was the British government that lost when we struck work. Today it is the Indian government (and that effectively means us), the poor daily wage earners and street vendors who lose. Here in Tripura even the cycle rickshaws were off the road!
I was to meet some journalists and the first one, Mr. Pradeep Saha, News Editor of the Tripura Darpan, called on me. Later in the evening Mr. Dipanta Majumder of the Dainik Sambad, the leading daily in Tripura, arrived. Both the sessions went off well. They had been primed that I spoke Bengali and that helped a great deal as they were both comfortable, particularly with my Bengali having lost a lot of its rustiness over the last three weeks.
At 6 pm we drove out of the Ginger and explored the city. It was clearly a Bengali city and the culture evident in its broad streets. Although it was late we managed to get into the Ujjayanta Palace which had served for many years as the state’s legislative assembly house. It was under renovation after which, I was told, it would be converted into a museum.
- Thomas Chacko
I woke up at 3 am got ready and roused Kunju. In spite of the early waking up, it was 4.45 am by the time we got going. Naturally, it was faster going down to Siliguri than it had been coming up and we reached Siliguri by about 10 am, spotted the second of Federal Bank’s branches in that city and spent some time there. The Federal Bank manager suggested a route that would take us to the highway to Agartala without going through the inner city. We thereby made up more than the time we spent at the bank.
We had been told that after a few km the road to Agartala was superb. Yes it was better than most of the roads we had seen in the north east, but did not qualify to be called a “superb” road. Perhaps when you are used to terrible roads, a road such as the one we were on would be thought of as very good.
We found ourselves running out of fuel in the tank, but since we had about 20 litres in the spare jerrycan, we did not worry and kept going. However, when we found two petrol pumps, one closed and the other out of fuel, we filled up from our spare can.
In the meantime we called up the Ginger in Agartala and got the number of the Bangladesh visa office. Many journalists in Guwahati and elsewhere in the north east had told us that it would be easy to get a transit visa and that we would be able to get across to Kolkata in a single day, saving us considerable time and effort. However, when we called, we were told that although we would get visas by the evening of the day of application, the car would have to remain in Agartala as they don’t allow private cars to transit through the country! That put paid to our plans to drive through Bangladesh.
About 40 km before Agartala we entered what was clearly forest region. By then it was about 4.30 pm and we had to wait awhile before being let through. Having been told in Silchar that a few years ago they used to stop vehicles from entering that forest after 4 pm, we stopped at the next check point and asked if there were any timings still in force for entry into this region. We were told that vehicles could ply only from 8 am onwards. That put paid to our plans to make an early start, but we counted ourselves lucky that we had been allowed through at 4.30 pm. Perhaps if we were half an hour later we would not have been let through.
We entered Agartala by about 6 pm and stopped at the first fuel pump to top up the tank and the spare can. Thereafter we went to the Ginger Hotel and checked in. After an early dinner we went to bed and crashed out. I had driven 480 km that day of which about 200 had been on hill roads.
I have now completed 4 weeks of travel. The car had crossed 11,000 km of which I had driven 8000. The minimum that I drove on any day was 86 km and that was from Gangtok to Kalimpong and the maximum was 652 km from Mumbai to Indore (via Trimbak) on the very first day of my journey.
- Thomas Chacko
With Aizawl being only 180 km we decided to leave a little later than usual. When you make decisions like that you invariably take things easy and so it was 8.30 am by the time we left the club. We had never been so late in setting out. We immediately ran into traffic – chaos personified, indeed.
We had been told that the road to Imphal was good, but it was only after about 35 km that it was actually good and that was after we had crossed into Mizoram, where our papers were scrutinized.
Soon after we entered Mizoram, the scenery and the frontage of the houses began to change. The road began to climb and the scenery beautiful. Everything was neat and clean and so it remained till we reached Aizawl, among the loveliest of the North East’s capitals.
There we went to the Aijal Club, which lay very close to the Raj Bhavan and therefore in the centre of town. It began to rain soon after that and Kunju jumped into a taxi and went to the local branch of Federal Bank, while I took my umbrella and camera and walked around the place and took a few photographs.
Tomorrow would be a long day as we had to return to Silchar and from there find our way to Agartala, a total distance of 480 km. We have to reach Agartala tomorrow for with an All India bandh called by the BJP and the CPM, the next day, we could be stuck somewhere for a very long time.
- Thomas Chacko
We knew we had a tough day ahead of us and so we woke up at 4 am and checked out of the hotel by 5.30. When we stopped at about 6 am to fill petrol, old one of the attendants said he had seen the car in the newspapers and brought it to us. The car and yours truly were featured in colour on the font page – was that the first time ever? I would not know for that was the first time I had seen a newspaper featuring me ever since I set out from Mumbai on 3rd May - but I noted that the journalist had misquoted me. He had me saying that “Everything I had heard was not true….” or words to that effect. What I had told him was that some of my perceptions had changed after actually coming to the North East.
We had been advised by many not to venture on the Imphal-Silchar road. Some said the road was strictly Bolero-Scorpio territory. Others said that there was danger from ‘terrorists’ and that the Nano would not make it.
Yesterday Kunju had called Mr. Joseph, his manager in Silchar and asked for his advice. Joseph having been in the North East for only a short while called his regional manager, who called Kunju and told him that a major Federal Bank client Budhmal Baid was building part of that highway and that he would shortly call us and he did. Mr. Baid said that the road was under repair in many parts, but that it was just about motorable. He said he would call Vishwanath, his site manager and tell him to expect us for lunch. He told us that his site was about 150 km from Imphal.
The first 100 km as reasonably good and we made good progress. Thereafter the road was bad. Fortunately it had not rained so the slush was manageable. Somewhere we took the wrong turn and went about 7.5 km off route. The extra 15 km cost us almost an hour, such was the condition of the road. By about 1.30 pm we reached Baid’s site where we were received by Vishwanath, who turned out to be from Hyderabad – a long way from home, he was indeed. We were treated to some very wholesome and tasty Rajasthani fare. There was nothing along the way and we were fortunate in many ways that we had consulted Budhmal Baid.
Lunch over we drove on and the road slowly began to improve and eventually became quite good till about 15 km before Silchar when it became potholed and full of traffic. The main branch of Federal Bank had kept a pair of officers on a motorcycle to lead us to the bank, where the entire staff had waited for us. There we were received with great honour and presented with bouquets and the traditional Assamese shawl. It was Kunju’s first visit to the North East and the manager and staff went really out of their way to receive their Executive Director, even though he was not on an official visit.
Thereafter we went to the Cachar Club an old establishment which unlike many other planters’ clubs had been renovated and was indeed a fine place.
- Thomas Chacko
We managed to set out by 6.50 am. 12 km later we came to the model Naga village and although it was a Sunday, the gates were open and we drove in. There was not a soul in sight and we went through the place admiring the Naga craftsmanship in wood.
From there we crossed into Manipur and by 11 am were in Imphal. We checked into the hotel and then went to see the Kangla complex. The Kangla is a huge area – some 300 acres I was told -in the heart of town. Within there are remnants of a fort, open air theatre, temples, a moat and many other structures built by the maharajas of Manipur.
We returned to the hotel and a little before 3 pm went to the hotel’s coffee shop and awaited the arrival of members of the press. By 3 pm there were about 8 journalists representing various newspapers all of whom wanted to know why I had undertaken such a journey. It was a good session and I could see that they were impressed with the effort thus far and my impressions about the North East.
The session over I went to our room to watch the Monaco F1 race.
- Thomas Chacko
The guest house was very well appointed and we woke up to the knock on the door of someone bring in the morning tea. Later after breakfast Kunju went to the local branch of the Federal Bank and from there gave me a call to say that a journalist from the Nagaland Post, the state’s largest daily wanted to interview me. Soon a young lady Esther Verma, came to the guest house and then went with me in the Nano to the office of the newspaper where she interviewed me. After the interview we found that the editor Mr. Geoffrey Yaden wanted to meet me. So I went across to his house which was within the same compound and spent about an hour with him, in the process learning so much about Naga issues.
Thereafter Kunju joined us and after a while we went to the guest house packed the car and left for Kohima at about 1.30 pm. We arrived there in about 2 hours and went to the Heritage Hotel, an old establishment recommended by Lonely Planet. We found the place to be real old world and decided on staying there.
Soon thereafter the designated manager of the soon to be opened Federal Bank came over and when he told us that the War Cemetery would close at 5 pm, we dashed there without even having lunch. There we found the gate locked even though it was only 4 pm and we could see the signboard stating that during summer the cemetery would be open from 9 am to 5 pm. So we went around the cemetery and found a house beyond which lay the cemetery. We entered and a man opened a door and told us that the cemetery was closed. When we told him that it was not yet 5 pm he said that on Saturdays it closed earlier. Despite our entreaties he closed the door firmly. We then decided that we had every right to enter the place and that the fellow was using Saturday as a pretext to goof ogg early and entered the cemetery.
It was a very moving experience to see the wonderfully laid out cemetery and the names of those who had died in WWII, both British and Indian, some as young as 19 years. What was even more moving were the words on a monument "When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today."
From there we went and checked out the Federal Bank’s soon to be branch and then went to the St Mary’s Cathedral, which when it was completed about 25 years ago laid claim to being Asia’s largest church. It was indeed a very impressive building built with modern materials but in the traditional style. A choir was practicing on the foot of the stairs. I found the music very melodic and after a few verses began singing the tune into my mobile phone. Later I went to the choir and asked if they would give me a copy of the words and then stood there and quietly sang with them.
By then Bosco from the Federal Bank had got permission to enter the cathedral and we went in. The Altar was completely different from any that I had seen. There were crossed spears on either side of the altar and the pulpit was made in the fashion of a Naga drinking cup. The cross with a statue of the crucified Christ was on a cross made from one tree and stood on the head of a Mithun, Nagaland’s semi domesticated bovine, which is the state’s emblem.
Thereafter we met Father Carlos and Fr Sojan, priests attached to the cathedral and after tea and refreshments in the refectory, returned to the hotel, had dinner and went to bed.
- Thomas Chacko
We had checked into the KRC Palace Hotel, the place we had stayed on the 21st , at 1.30 am. Tired as we were we would have slept much longer had we not been woken up by a call – we had not thought of shutting off our mobile phones. I checked up about the car and was told that there was so much slush on the underside that they would have to clean everything before they could download the gearbox to change the clutch.
A later call gave me much greater comfort for they told me that the engine was fine – I had been worried about the car having heated up after the ordeal through the slush – and that the car would be ready by about 5 pm.
I used the time to send off the reports for days 20, 21 and 22 and some photographs for each of those days through the computer in the hotel’s business centre. Kunju in the meantime went to the local branch of the Federal Bank.
With an all Assam bandh having been declared for 26th it was imperative to get out of Assam that day. But there was a bandh that day called by some outfit, whose name I did not quite get, which though it did not affect Tezpur, had some impact outside the city. With contradictory reports about its impact and its duration we consulted a few people and then decided to leave after 5 pm, when the bandh would be officially over or whenever the car was ready.
So at about 4.30 pm we checked out of the hotel, took a taxi and went to the Ghosh Brothers distributorship of Tata Motors. There, although the clutch and clutch cable had been replaced, we had to wait till the car was tested, cleaned and washed - something it really required – and by 6.15 pm we were on the road.
We drove for almost 4 hours through the best road I had yet driven on in Assam. Part of it was through the Kaziranga Game Sanctuary . It was night and so we did not get to see what must have been beautiful scenery. By 9.30 pm we were just short of the Nagaland border where the road was lined with liquor shops - there being prohibition in Nagaland – and by 10 pm we reached the house of Mohan Panesar, where we were put up in his well appointed guest house. By then the car had crossed 10,000 km of which I had driven almost 7000 km , a figure I would cross tomorrow.
- Thomas Chacko
I woke up early thanks largely to a light that just would not go out. If there was a switch to activate it, it must have been securely placed behind something we had no inkling of. It was in a way good, because I was able to get ready and then call Kunju. He was ready in a jiffy and we left the hotel at 4.30 am and went to the Tawang Monastery, a 400 year old establishment reputed to have a very large Buddhist library, second only to the one at Lhasa. The monastery sits on the crest of a hill and you can get splendid views of the city from there.
A few people came up to us and asked about the car. It was the first Nano they had seen in Tawang. Almost everyone seemed amazed that the Nano had made it over the Se La pass.
The monastery we went to the war memorial. We reached there just in time for the morning bugle call and stood there at attention till the bugler finished. It was indeed very moving to see the names and read about the brave soldiers who had given their lives for the country.
By 6.15 am we were on the road back to Tezpur. We soon ran into the first of the hitches we were to face that day. A landslide was being cleared and the earth on the road soft. Because they had just cleared the road and we were the second car to go through we did not have to face the deep ruts that trucks invariably make in such roads and managed to get through without mush difficulty.
We made it over Se La once more without any difficulty. Thereafter we had no real difficulty although the road was, for most parts, miserable. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has boards all over the place proclaiming that they are working for a better tomorrow. But we did not see even one place where they were actually building the road or resurfacing it. All we saw were women sitting by the side of the road breaking stones. We did spot a BRO officer’s mess and some facilities like that, though.
About 30 km from the border we came to the place where the Scorpio had got stuck the day before. We had made it without much difficulty after we helped the Scorpio to get out of the rut, but yesterday it was downhill. Today we were faced with an uphill task, literally. Also it had rained sometime earlier and the ground was soft and muddy. We tried going up but halfway got stuck in the mud. Soon vehicles began to pile up on both ends of the bad patch. After a while a Toyota SUV with red light flashing came up and its driver and some people came out and tried to push the car down the slope, but it would not budge even with the Nano in reverse gear. Then a gentleman got out of the SUV and lent his hand and when he did, others joined in we finally managed to get the Nano down. The gentleman turned out to be Mr. Phurpa Tsering, the MLA from Dirang. He suggested that his driver was used to driving over this place and that he would ask him to drive the Nano across. The driver revved up the car and raced up the incline. Although he took the Nano beyond where we had reached, he too got stuck. He tried going forward but all he succeeded in doing was to emit smoke. We then went to the car and with many hands and the car revving in 1st gear, managed to get it over the slush.
After about half an hour, by which time it was dark, we started off but found that the clutch was slipping. There being no connectivity in the area – and for many miles around – we pressed, on nursing the car. We faced still more slushy roads, but these were almost on level ground and we managed. About 20 km before Tezpur an oncoming Bolero 4WD stopped and told us not to continue on that road as it was very bad. He said he would show us a road that would bypass the bad stretch. So we turned and followed the Bolero and got on to a new road, which although quite rutted was firmer ground.
About 50 km after we had got stuck, we managed to connect with Arup Sarmah, Area Service Manager of Tata Motors based in Guwahati, who said he would try and organize a vehicle to tow us. Soon thereafter about 10 km from Tezpur, the clutch was on its last legs and after about 3 km, the car would hardly move. In the meantime Arup called up to say that he had arranged for someone to help us. We waited on the road till they came and they towed us a couple of km to a Tata Motors workshop where we left the car and were dropped off to our hotel by 1.30 am.
Having started out of our hotel in Tawang at 4.30 am, it had indeed been a long, long day – 21 hours on the road.
- Thomas Chacko
We woke up at 5.00 am and managed to leave by 6.15 am. It was uphill and ghat road all the way and although the road improved it was still potholed. The scenery, however, was great and it kept improving as we went along. We kept climbing, almost without let. Can you imagine a Munnar without end and in place of the manicured tea gardens, thick forest cover. We did not see a single truck carrying timber, a common sight in forest areas in the rest of the country. After about 50 km the road started becoming bad again. Eyesores in paradise!
When we were about 17 km from Se La we could sense the road rising steeper than before and after a few km, our breathing labored. I did not know the altitude, but knew we were well over 10,000 ft above sea level. We could see old ice on some mountain tops. By then the tree cover was gone and the mountains stark and bare. Before we knew it we had climbed to Se La, 13,700 ft above sea level. It was the highest I had been to yet, the previous highest being the Godthard Pass which Geetha and I visited in 1987. But then I was not driving the car in Switzerland.
Enroute we stopped at the Jaswant Singh Memorial. There we read about the exploits of that brave soldier. The army serves piping hot tea free to everyone and all are invited to partake. Thereafter we went and checked into a hotel.
It was a very long drive – 12 hours covering 256 km, the longest ghat road that I had ever been on.
- Thomas Chacko
We left early, as planned, and drove to Itanagar, capital of Arunachal Pradesh. No sooner than we had entered a pump to fill petrol just before entering Arunachal Pradesh, a man came up and to our surprise he said that he had read about the Nano Drive in the newspaper. When I asked him which one, he replied that it was the Seven Sisters. I tried the local newsagent but he had sold all the 21st May copies.
Having been told that the governor, General JJ Singh, the former chief of the Indian Army, would see us in the morning, we went directly to the Raj Bhavan. There we were told that the governor was in a meeting, but would see us at 12.30 pm. That put us in a bit of a quandary because we had planned on reaching Bomdila that night. After discussing we decided to try and reach Tenga instead and wait and meet His Excellency, which was all to the good because earlier that day we had discovered that our Inner Line Permits for Arunachal Pradesh mentioned only Itanagar, not Tawang to which we had planned to go. So we utilized the time to get that sorted out. We also met Albert Taye, the manager of HDFC Bank, who was from Arunachal Pradesh. We therefore got a lot of information from him about the state.
At 12.20 we returned to the Raj Bhavan and met General JJ Singh. He received us most graciously and then wanted to see the Nano. So I bought the car right up to the stairs leading out from his office and when the general came out, Kunju took quite a few photographs. Thereafter the general insisted that we stay for lunch although we told him that we planned to reach Tenga that day. Soon we found ourselves on the lovely terrace, where we were joined by Mrs JJ Singh, Maj. Gen. Vinod Pillai and Col Sanjay Parashar, both from Tenga. It turned out to be a wonderful experience, listening to the governor talk about his plans for the state, about the work he had put in to make the Raj Bhavan truly beautiful.
Lunch over, Gen and Mrs JJ Singh presented us with mementos which we gratefully accepted. It was at about that time that the general asked us where we planned to reach that day. When we told him that it was Tenga, Maj Gen Pillai said that we should not try that because the road was bad and often the fog made things tricky at night. He and Col Parashar suggested that we stop at the transit camp at Sessa. We agreed and Col Parashar said he would make the necessary arrangements.
We left the Raj Bhavan by 2.30 pm and were soon on the road to Tezpur and reached the turn off to Tawang by 6.00 pm. Thereafter for the next 45 km, we drove through the worst road yet, one on which I thought I would surely get stuck. Along the way a Scorpio got stuck in the mud. We got out of our car and helped the guys to move their car. Thanks to the Nano’s clearance and width we made it through and reached Sessa by about 9.30 pm, way past the time we had expected to reach that army camp. Yes it was a day of surprises, both good and bad, but then that’s what life and such journeys are all about.
Tomorrow we should cross Se La, about 14000 ft above sea level.
- Thomas Chacko
With a press meet arranged for noon in Guwahati, we left Shillong at 8.00 am. The drive was mostly downhill and so it did not take as much time as it had when we went to Shillong on the 18th. We found ourselves on the outskirts of Guwahati by about 10.30 am and found our way to the Ginger.
The press arrived on time and I had a lively interaction with them. Mr. PP Singh, representing the Seven Sisters Post, provided a lot of useful information about conditions in the North East and made some practical suggestions.
I was also interviewed by TV network, Prime News. Later in the evening we saw a short clip of the interview and me driving the Nano appearing repeatedly at the bottom of the screen on Prime News’ 7 pm programme. It was indeed an experience seeing myself on TV – earlier experiences having been limited to appearances with the Cochin Chorale and the Cochin Minstrels, two choirs in which I used to sing tenor. However, the pictures did not appear on the full screen.
With the press-meet over, I went to Ghosh Brothers, one of the distributors of Tata Motors to have the car serviced, it having covered more than 5000 km since I had left Mumbai on 3rd May. Everybody at the workshop seemed very excited about the expedition I was on. The service was done quickly and thereafter they took a lot of photographs They also presented me with an Assamese hat and draped a traditional shawl over my shoulders. I returned to the Ginger where we waited to see ourselves on TV before proceeding to the restaurant for dinner.
- Thomas Chacko
Maj General A, K, Bardoloi, who had made all the arrangements for our stay in Phuentsholiong and Thimpu was tied up the day before and so could not meet us. He very graciously came to our apartment in the morning before we left at 6 am and so we got to meet and speak with someone who I had chatted with over the telephone and got to thank him in person.
We left the Officer’s Mess at 6.05 am and soon were on the road and making good time while travelling through really beautiful country. Bhutan is indeed truly beautiful and the place is clean and the traffic very disciplined.
But our progress was soon cut short at 8 am. The night before there was a small landslide that blocked the road. However, by the time we were there, a JCB was at work and by 8.30 am we could get going. Progress was slow because of the accumulated traffic.
That was the first of our delays. We crossed into Assam and with less than 300 km to go we thought we would go to Guwahati. When we reached the Kachugaon Forest check post, a few km into Assam, we were stopped by the guards who told us that there was an Assam Bandh on and that traffic could resume only at 5 pm – it was a 12 hour bandh 5 am to 5 pm. Were we back in Kerala, I wondered. The irony was that we had gone through West Bengal, the other state notorious for bandhs. The guards suggested that we go back a few km to a decent restaurant and wait there till 4 pm when we could start out and reach the possible trouble spot by 5 pm. We took their advice and went to Shantibagan and since we had not yet had lunch ordered our food which turned out to be very good indeed – as it usually is in West Bengal.
So here we are in Shatibagan waiting for 4 pm.
- Thomas Chacko
Today we complete a fortnight since we began our journey from Mumbai. Left the IMTRAT guest house in Phuentsholing by 6.20 and within 5 km were at the check post, where we presented our papers for self and car. From this point on the car began attracting attention. Most were seeing a Nano for the first time and were friendly and curious. We then entered Bhutan, the only foreign country on our itinerary.
We drove till Gedo where we stopped to fill petrol. Again there were many who were curious about the car and when I went to pay, one of the bystanders, seeing that I was paying in Indian currency almost snatched the money from my hands. He then produced local currency and gave it to his friend, the pump attendant, there is a currency advantage for the Indian Rupee. Fuel cost only Rs. 59.50 per litre, the lowest I had yet paid on my journey.
There were a few people in the fuel pump and all of them were seeing a Nano for the first time. One asked if it was an electric vehicle. They were interested mainly in the price. [Later on in Paro some youngsters asked us if it were an electric vehicle. In Thimpu, although we did not see a single Nano, we saw a Reva electric car.]
We drove on from Gedu and along the way decided to drive through Paro. It meant an extra 48 km, but proved to be worthwhile, The Dzonga (palace) and the bridge leading to it being very picturesque.
On entering Thimpu we tried to find the main street, but wound up near a collection of shops selling Bhutanese handicrafts and decided to find a place to have lunch and asked a passerby, who led us to the first floor of a house where there was a restaurant run by a family. When they realized that we wanted to try Bhutanese food, they began to smile and recommended some dishes which we ordered – Sikam Paa a dried pork and large red chilly dish, Beef Ema Datshi, a beef and cheese preparation accompanied by daal, red rice and buttermilk. The food was indeed very delicious.
From there we found our way to the IMTRAT guest house – we had to disturb General Bardoloi while he was playing golf - and found ourselves in very good accommodation.
In the evening we went to the main street and sent off an email to the effect that we had no connectivity on any of our mobiles and that we had no internet connection either. From there we went to the Bhutan Kitchen, which was recommended for offering authentic Bhutanese food. The food was good but not as great as the stuff we had for lunch.
- Thomas Chacko
With the forthcoming days’ travel being up in the hills, I thought it best to check out the brakes and clutch. So we left Malda at 5.30 am and found the road improving as we went along. The scenery too was nice and the emerald green paddy fields very reminiscent of Kerala.
At Dalkhola we left NH 34 and turned on to NH 31, which soon became a 4 lane highway and remained so all the way to Siliguri except for the stretch through Islampur.
We reached Lexican Motors by about 10 am and got the car attended to. Nothing was amiss and that gave me a lot of confidence as we had already crossed 3500 km and the car over 6500 km. We got the car cleaned and since it was not yet 1 pm, we decided to press on to Darjeeling 73 km away.
Even though with the main road being blocked because of a landslide and the consequent road repairs, we had to use the route through Mirik, the drive up the hills was fascinating. After Mirik we ran into mist which made it a bit tricky since I did not know the route. But with the Nano having fog lights as standard equipment, I could manage well enough.
We had not booked accommodation, but managed to get a lovely heritage room in the Dekelin Hotel and checked in well in time to watch the Barcelona Formula One qualifying session and saw Lewis Hamilton take pole with Pastor Maldonado 2nd and Fernando Alonso 3rd.
- Thomas Chacko
We started out at 6.15 am and drove past the airport through the old Jessore Road, now NH 34. We had been warned by many that the road was horrible. In fact one of the journalists who interviewed me in Kolkata, told me that his Ford Figo bottomed on that road and his sump got holed. I therefore had visions of the road from Sagar to Khajuraho.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that in many places the road had been redone and the ones that had not been were nowhere near as bad as the Madhya Pradesh roads.
About 175 km from Calcutta we took a 3 km detour to visit the Plassey memorial. Plassey, as many would know was the place where India was sold to the East India Company, with Mir Jaffer getting Siraj ud Doula’s troops to run away from the battlefield, leaving their Nawab to be chased and killed by the English.
Finally we reached the Farrakka Barrage and as we drove over it, we saw the Ganges flow towards Bangladesh. The river is indeed lovely here and so much more impressive than it is at Varanasi. Photography being prohibited, we could not get any of the car and the river.
We were in Malda by about 4.30 pm, much earlier than we thought we would be.
- Thomas Chacko
Started out early to avoid the rush out of Ranchi, but even though we left at 5.20 am we ran into traffic. We had been advised to take an alternate route to avoid the rush out of Ranchi and we did just that.
Ranchi sits on the Chota Nagpur plateau and we were soon on a ghat road that leads down from the plateau.
Thereafter we continued till we reached the GT Road, from where the four lane highway took us all the way to the turn off for the Vidyasagar Setu, the 3rd bridge over the Hoogly River.
The first on our agenda was to visit one of Kolkata’s landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, the 150 year old church in which I had been confirmed, married and in which my son was baptized and where I had sung tenor in the choir for many years. Thereafter we went to Nizam's, famous all over for the kebab rolls. On the way we snapped a tram running past the Nano.
The car ran well for the 430 odd km from Ranchi to Kolkata and now we are gearing up for the run to the North East.
- Thomas Chacko
Tired after walking around the ghats and through the crowded streets near the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, we went to bed early and woke up in time for an early start. We managed to get off by 7 am.
The drive was uneventful except for a long wait at the level crossing at Arrah where we got stuck for about 20 minutes. Since Arrah was one of the centres of the revolt of 1857, popularly referred to as the first war of Indian independence, we took a photograph.
We reached Patna at 1 pm and went to the Federal Bank to get the manager's signature for my logbook.
Thereafter we went to Guinea Motors to have the car checked out. After the horrible roads in Madhya Pradesh, I needed to get the car checked out. Apparently all it needed was a tightening of some of the bolts.
- Thomas Chacko
The day did not start off well. I went and took a photograph of the Nano with the Unknown sculptor of Khajuraho and filled gas. Returned to the hotel and asked one of the boys to wash the car. Since the inside had to be cleaned, I gave him the key which he managed to insert into the ignition resulting in the car locking. We managed to get the car open.
Left Khajuraho at 8.30 am and proceeded to Satna through the Panna Tiger Reserve and from there to Rewa, famous for the Rewa Maheshwari sarees. The road was good till about 20 km before the UP border when we went through a bad stretch of about 10 km. Once we crossed the border we found ourselves on the crest of a ghat section - the Chak Ghat - a truly lovely sight.
Thereafter the roads were good till we reached the Yamuna River and crossed the new bridge. At the other end the road was bad but only for a short distance. We did not like the hotel we had booked in and found the Harsh Ananda, a lovely old heritage building which had been converted into a hotel.
- Thomas Chacko
We set out from Mumbai at 6.30 am and made very good progress. Enroute we decided to go to Trimbak, which is famous for being the source of the Godavari and for the Trimbakeshwar Temple which houses one of the 12 Jyotilingams in India.
The car ran beautifully and we found ourselves in Dhule well before 3 pm and so decided to press on to Indore, which we reached by 7 pm and checked into the Ginger hotel there.
We covered in all over 650 km on Day 1.
- Thomas Chacko