Does the sight of a road, stretching out as far as the eye can see, turn your motor on?
Would you like every day to be a winding road for you?
Then Rediff.com's Rajesh Karkera's account of the 11-day road voyage he made recently, across some of South Asia's most deserted, challenging terrain, always under the gaze of the sacred, dazzling Himalaya, is a MUST READ!
Leg 1: Lucknow to Lumbini, 350 km, 7 hours of driving but 4 hours on the road
What can be more unusual than a road trip across three countries, crossing two borders?
India. Nepal. Bhutan.
Border crossings at Belahiya, Nepal and Phuentsholing, Bhutan.
And clocking a whopping and delicious 1,995 km on the odometer (on my car at least).
I have done many thrilling road trips before, like one to the north east a few years ago.
But this one was different. Because it was tri-nation. Because of the sheer excitement of border crossings.
Because, mainly, as fellow traveller Shreepad Kuthyar pointed out, of the diversity of the participants on this trip. Couples. Families with little kids. Friends travelling together. A father-daughter duo. Solos.
The ages ranged from three to 74!
All on a daunting journey of nearly 2,000 km.
All on an adventure that would make the most Technicolour memories!
A road trip is normally all about travelling at your own pace. You can stop to admire the surroundings. Or take breaks as and when you feel like it.
But what happens when you are in a convoy of 30 plus cars?
That too in top-notch SUVs, whose engines seductively urge you to take any terrain at your pace.
You can't follow your heart behind the wheel in convoy-driving.
So on this trip it was not allowed. How could it be? Imagine, if all 32 cars stopped at different places in areas where there is no cell network. Nope, no stopping unless all 32 were making the stop in unison.
That's why a Mahindra Adventure drive like this tests your patience. But also makes you a better and more responsible driver.
And at the end of it you leave for home with a bundle of sweet memories, that you would not trade for anything, and new welcoming friends from different parts of the country (different countries).
Our tri-nation trip started off at the Taj Mahal hotel, Lucknow, where we were allotted our cars and received our first briefing.
Do note: Mahindra Adventure gives you their cars for the entire trip -- all well-maintained, almost new Scorpio S11s, XUV500s or something similar. All with filled-up tanks.
What other automobile manufacturer has so much confidence in its vehicles that it would give it to complete strangers to drive on crazy spin across three countries?
For a fee of course, but the fee covers everything from lodging at five-star properties, visas and meals (even specially curated lunches and dinners).
The keys were handed to the participants at the briefing the evening before.
The fleet for this trip was 32 vehicles -- Mahindra Scorpios, XUV 500s and a Thar.
Participants numbered over eighty. Add to that the head count of the service teams and the Mahindra Adventure and Mahindra's Xtreme Sports Organisation crew.
The trip's first flag off, from Lucknow's Taj on November 16, got a bit delayed. That had to be blamed on the sheer size of the winding convoy that snaked ahead like a python who had had too much breakfast.
A distance of approximately 338 km from Lucknow to Sonauli, at the India-Nepal border, was covered in approximately six-and-a-half hours.
Not bad at all for a convoy this size!
Then there was a wait of almost four hours for immigration clearance.
Sonauli on the Indian side and Belahiya village on the Nepal side were two entirely different landscapes.
On the Indian side, the roads were smooth, clean asphalt. But on the Nepal side the roads were rather dusty, so dusty that visibility was awfully poor. In the headlights you could only see clouds of white dust rising up in the air and not much else.
There were a few shops selling liquor and sekua (grilled meat of goat/beef). But with their prices, they were fleecing tourists. Worth the experience even if the sekua was quite inedible :)
It was at this first border crossing that you realised the concern the Mahindra Adventure teams have for the comfort of their participants.
Raj Kapoor, who was the leader of this expedition and also the co-founder of the Xtreme Sports Organisation, announced over the car radio (each convoy car was fitted with) that buses had been arranged to take the participants to the Tiger palace resort in Lumbini, Nepal, which was 11 km away, the stop for the night. Meanwhile, his team would work on the paperwork to get the vehicles into Nepal and bring them.
A handful of us stayed back to help the drivers the best we could, which meant waiting at the border for three to four hours. That was fine actually. Driving and adventure were what we had signed up for. We made a handful of new friends while we waited :) as we tried to eat the grilled meat.
It took several trips to get all the SUVs to the hotel.
The first night was an exhausting one. Every pore of our skin was clogged with dust. But we were all looking forward to the drive the next day to Pokhara.
Leg 2: Lumbini to Pokhra, 175 km, 11 hours of driving
It was quite a charged team that faced a new drive and the new day at the Tiger palace resort, Lumbini, some after not even a good night's rest.
At 9 am we hit the road.
The car he drives is termed the Float.
Ruban Grewal and his Float can come out of nowhere behind you in the convoy and tell you in a stark, cold voice to either buck up or be in line.
Ruban is lovingly termed The Terminator.
The second leg of the drive was a mere 175 km. Everyone thought it would be a piece of cake.
It turned out to be a long 11-hour escapade, which started off with getting stuck in traffic.
Since we were passing through Lumbini it was unlikely that we would not visit the birthplace of the Buddha, who was born Prince Siddhartha Guatama in 623 BC here.
We spent a good couple of hours there.
Close to where we parked our Scorpios was the Myanmar gold stupa inside the Peace Park, Lumbini.
Quite similar to peace pagodas all over the world, this stupa with its shimmering spire recalled the Bagan stupa in Myanmar and is one of the oldest monuments at Lumbini.
The baby Buddha on the path to the birthplace was chosen for selfies and photos.
The paved path was a nice walk in the winter sun, with green wetlands on both sides. Monks from all over the world are drawn like magnets to the Buddha's birthplace.
Around these excavated ruins a temple-like structure has been built. Inside the temple you could see the ruins and the exact spot of his birth, marked with a glass box. This was where pilgrims and visitors offered their prayers in silence.
No photography of any kind was allowed inside this structure.
In one part of the garden outside the temple, strings and strings of prayer flags were like a fluttering roof to walk under. One couldn't help but sit here and drink in the tranquility.
After spending two hours there, I realised I was one of the last people to leave. When I rushed out I found the MA team were looking for me.
The convoy started to roll again.
On all journeys like this it is almost scripted that one person gets left behind or lost.
Hardly had we got out of Lumbini when it dawned that Mahindra Adventure team Photographer Vishnu was missing!
All 32 cars couldn't turn around. So Manish Sarser from the Mahindra Adventures team, who drives the Roving (a roving car that is not restricted to any specific location in the convoy and moves up and down the convoy to help the participants), went back to The Buddha's birthplace to look for Vishnu.
An hour later, a message came from Manish on the radio: 'Package picked up' :)
Vishnu was found at The Buddha's birthplace, so engrossed in shooting his pictures that he had lost track of time.
Darkness came early around here. By 6 pm, it felt like it was past 10 pm.
The rest of the drive to our next stop -- the Tuki resorts in Pokhara -- was filled with chatter on the radio, which made it rather fun and the long day didn't seem that long any more as we drove a single file to reach our rest stop for the next two nights.
"Get ready for the evening gala dinner," said the lead. The evening festivities began with Isa Khan investing his heart in singing, appropriately, Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo. Isa, who is a travel photographer and a gem of a person, teaches economics in Delhi.
Day 3 was a free day in Pokhara.
Everyone could take their cars out and explore on their own.
Some went paragliding. Some went for a trek. Others just walked through the markets and enjoyed the brews in the cafes and bars nearby.
Pokhara was a rural place -- scenic and serene. In Pokhara we went looking for Machhapuchhare, the famous fish tail mountain of Nepal. We were unsuccessful. It was either too bright during the day or too cloudy in the wee hours of the mornings.
Radhika Sharma -- one of our media participants and a vlogger (do check out her vlogs called Radhika Nomllers; she's terrific) -- was up at 4:30 am to see the sunrise. All she could capture was clouds and fog.
Just the smile on her face made us buy stuff.
In the evening, the festivities continued and brought an unexpected guest.
Have a look at this lizard basking in the warmth of the light inside. Looked like it was on the moon!
Leg 3 Pokhara to Kathmandu, 201 km, 10 hours of driving
Mornings always begin early on these expeditions. Just like they should. You end up covering a lot of distance early in the morning.
But rolling out of Pokhara took its own sweet time with some participants forgetting to deposit their key cards back at the Tuki resorts where we stayed.
Vikram Kapur, the advance car from XSO team, handled the situation in a manner so that none of the participants fell out of the convoy.
The advance car in a convoy is always about 2 km ahead of the convoy to keep an eye out for any road mishaps ahead. Or to decide where all the cars in the convoy can stop for breaks etc.
As the 32 cars rolled out, one stayed behind to clear the hotel issues and one shuttled back from the convoy with the hotel key cards to later join us.
Nature calls, or bio breaks, as they are called, in these adventures are not just a small stop. Imagine getting space for 32 cars to park!
The 201 km drive to Kathmandu resulted in many of the cars in the convoy getting lost and some stress levels also rising above the permitted levels -- hence the tagline: The Art of Getting Lost!
But everyone managed to finally roll into the Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu late in the night, our next halt for two days.
What followed that evening was a lovely live performance by Skin and Bones, an emerging Nepali fusion band which promotes Nepali instrumental music, playing on the Nepali sarangi. Something we have never seen before!
The next day was allotted to exploring Kathmandu on your own.
One's first impressions of Kathmandu, and Nepal for that matter, were marred by the dust! Everywhere in Nepal that we went -- Kathmandu especially -- places was choked in dust, white construction dust. Giant waves of white dust hit you everywhere.
We passed the local authorities cleaning the roads by blowing the dust directly into the shops and homes beside the road!
Anyone walking along the roads wore face masks. It was like Delhi. And the traffic :) another Mumbai.
The best thing that we did in Kathmandu was to spend the day inside the Hyatt. A 280 room and 37 acre property, roaming the landscaped grounds hidden behind a screen of trees that shielded one from the dust, was a great option.
Utilising our free day in Kathmandu seemed out of the question for me, considering my dust allergies. Some of us did not feel the need to leave the comforts of the lovely hotel property.
Many visited the Pashupatinath temple while the rest headed to the Bouddhanath stupa, also called the Khaasti Chaitya.
When Nabina Lamichhane, a friend from Nepal of one of my fellow participants, offered to take us to a historic Buddha stupa, just a few minutes walk away, I jumped at the chance.
Some of us had our faces covered with scarfs while others held our breaths every time a vehicle passed.
Because of the dust, the five-minute walk to Bouddhanath felt never ending.
When we finally turned left into a gate between to shops, the sight inside was breathtaking!
A set of large eyes gazed at us from atop the huge stupa.
This was the Baudhanath Stupa that Nabina wanted us to see! If not for her, we would have missed it!
As you walk inside towards the stupa, you see people all walking around it -- some were praying, some just taking in the calmness of the area.
And on the outer circle of the stupa are the shops and restaurants. Outside was a tray of small diyas, lit by devotees and visitors alike (Rs 10 each).
Maybe it was the chants coming from the nearby shops. Or maybe just the calmness in our hearts. But walking away from this spot did take some time :)
So we sat in a lovely cafe called Himalayan Java Coffee near the stupa till it was time to head back to the hotel.
Tomorrow, we would head back into India and to Bhutan!
- Part 2: Kathmandu to Siliguri, Siliguri to Paro
- Part 3: Bhutan: Tiger's Nest, giant momos, Happiness