Indian Expedition

A 7 Week Drive in North East India.


The Blue Line is the route of this story

Friday, June 21, 2013

Our Indian Suzuki

In June 2013 Lang needed some where to go and something to do! So off to India he went. He arrived in Kolkata and proceeded to buy a Suzuki ute and tour the local areas.

I arrived two weeks later and after a few days in Kolkata we set off north in our trusty vehicle. Although this trip was purely a bit of an adventure we were also doing a recce of the Calcutta to Myanmar border portion of Francis Birtles 1926 trip. Lang had long been a fan of this remarkable man and this gave us another interesting dimension to the trip.

(See newspaper articles at end of report)


Lang’s trip to a Tiger Reserve

It is quite fantastic the amount of paper – in carbon triplicate – that you get here. If you buy a 50 cent item at a modern supermarket they chase you out of the shop demanding you carry your cash register receipt. This works in your favour because if you have a bit of paper with stamps all over it you are a long way towards proceeding.

Of interest was going to Similipol Tiger Reserve in Orissa State west of Kolkata. Everyone has to drive along a terrible 2nd gear road for 18 kilometres to collect the entry form from the park ranger – these are only held by him, not at the office which gives the approval. You must then drive 18 kilometres back to an unsolubrious town to give your form to the Regional Inspector who makes copious copies of your passport and visa. Because I was driving my own car (along with many Indians) you have to go to the Transport Supervisor across town to have all the details checked, copied and certified in triplicate then take it all back to the Regional Inspector. Here the Regional Inspector copies the copies done at the Transport Supervisor and attaches them to your Park Permit Approval form. This can not be accomplished in one working day.
Going back the next morning you pick up the approval paperwork which runs to 13 pages and over 25 stamps and proceed the 18 kilometres back to the park gate. If you arrive outside the hours of 6.00am and 9.00am you miss out and have to come back the next day because they are the entry permit issuing times. The Park Ranger then meticulously checks the paperwork – by fantastic luck I had a copy of my International drivers licence – because the ranger’s copy machine did not work and he must keep a copy of all licences of drivers in the park which meant an 18 kilometre trip back to town and miss the ticket issuing time at the park gate. When I said just take the copy off the Regional Inspector’s pile he was shocked that I would attempt to mess with a complete set of approval papers.
Finally at 3 minutes to 9.00 and number 19 in the car line (only 20 cars per day are allowed into the park – the other poor devils had to come back tomorrow) I got my ticket. It was a nice drive through pretty dry forest with a couple of dry waterfalls that would be spectacular in the monsoon. And after all that I did not see one bloody TIGER!

Indian adventures progressing.

The little Suzuki 4X4 is plugging on well. Average speed on the main highway is only about 50kph mainly because the surface is shake your teeth rough and the millions of trucks sit on 45kph. We decided to take the back road out of Bagdogra/Silliguri up to Darjeeling which sits almost exactly the same height as the highest mountain in Australia.

As you get close, the 600km from Kolkata rises about 3 metres then suddenly before you are the Himalayas shooting up vertically out of the plain – no lead-in foot hills.

We headed into the hills on a winding switchback road only one car width wide. The Suzuki has a terrible lock and often I had two attempts to get around the corner. For about half an hour we needed first gear then it flattened out so I could grab second gear. Luckily there was little traffic because each passing required someone to hang over a 500 metre vertical drop while the other car scraped along the cliff face to get past.

Finally reaching our required altitude at about 2,500 metres I noted oil all over the road. The Suzuki obviously had a crook rear main bearing seal and the three hours screaming away in low gears with the nose pointed in the air had pushed it all out the back of the engine. Clutch seems OK so we will just carry on, hopefully a bit more level.

As we were all taught in school, Darjeeling is a British “hill station” started in the mid 1800’s to escape the heat of the lowlands. The social whirl would have been amazing and Victorian mansions and homes along with numerous Clubs soon appeared. In the late 1800’s the British built the “Toy Train” which is a narrow gauge line which takes 7 hours to climb from the Ganges plains to Darjeeling. A fantastic feat of engineering still running today. I talked to the locomotive fellows who were cleaning the firebox on an engine and they said of the 14 engines this was not the oldest being only 104 years old. They have 4 diesel locomotives as well but they did not like them as much and they are no faster than the steam trains.

The snow-capped peaks tower over the town. Unfortunately it is the dry season so the smog from the Indian plains sits in the valleys ruining the view but the peaks burst above the smoke level and you can see every detail of Kanchenjunga(one of various spellings). It is pipped by K2 only by 25 metres as the second highest mountain in the world. Everest can be seen a little further north west.

The town is now still a hill station to escape the plains heat in summer for wealthier Indians and foreign tourists and backpackers and every available inch is built on almost vertical slopes with very narrow winding streets and lots of steps and stairs.

Off to school

We jagged probably the newest place in town because you can only see the back of the hotel roofs as they are all built down the slope from the roadway. We just stopped to ask prices with Bev taking the place to the left and me to the right. I hit on the new Best Western which is western 4 star standard for $70 a night including full dinner and breakfast for two. We thought that would do although it was a rip-off after our previous nights in Napidwep and Malda in lesser hotels but at $14 per night, dinner $2 extra.

We stayed along the way here at Napidwep to go across the river to Mayapur which is the world headquarters of the Hari Krishna movement. Bev had met some fanatic at the Woodford Folk Festival who insisted it was a high point of an Indian visit. The boat trip across the huge river was very interesting. I actually found the area also very interesting because of the people. The Krishna movement is another of these self enlightenment deals and the beautiful temple (currently being replaced by a disgraceful waste of contributors’ funds by a building twice the size and three times the intricacy of Notre Dame in Paris) was manned by devotees.

Many of these devotees were gap year students and backpackers who had received the call (or had been smoking too many strange substances) sort of a throw back to the 60’s flower people. The older ones were of a type that would not make go of anything in the real world – like monks everywhere I suppose – and drifted along in Nirvana, flogging Yoga and Meditation booklets to the tourists or dancing in a state of euphoria to the drums and cymbals. It looked like about half the devotees were of some western nationality while the rest were Indian. Bev went to have a look in the temple while I contemplated a tofu burger or vegetarian steak for lunch.
Leaving Nabadwep we ran into the mother of all traffic jams. There was some sort of communist meeting blocking the highway through a large town (West Bengal is the only Indian communist state). The “highway” was a divided 4 lane affair running in and out of town and the trucks had been blocked but continued to pour into the fray from north and south. Never letting a chance go by they then flooded across the divider into the opposite carriageway and coupled with the “chancers” up the inside we had several thousand trucks six abreast facing each other in the middle of town. All this mixed with Tuk Tuks, motorcycles, three wheel bikes, rickshaws and people, goats and cows added to the gaeity of the occasion with the mob in the gathering lisrtening to speeches at three thousand decibels from giant loud speakers.

I went up the inside, driving through vegetable stalls, jumping ditches and pushing people aside until finally stopped. It looked like days in place with more trucks pouring into the mess from north and south by the minute. Using my fluent Bengali plus sign language I offered $2 to a likely looking lad who started dragging bikes and rickshaws aside just enough to turn us out into a tiny foot traffic only laneway. Scraping down the lane we finally popped out into the rice fields. We bounced our way along the buffalo cart tracks on top of the paddy bunds in a huge circle around town before heading back to the highway.

Unfortunately my man misjudged the extent of the herd packing in from the north and we popped out of an alley into the side of packed trucks, six wide, facing the opposite direction of those from which we had escaped. Yelling and waving – everyone remains completely calm- he got trucks inching back and forward to enable the Suzuki to scrape its mirrors through the gaps. We went through stalls, had to be helped out of a huge ditch by 30 people when 4WD was inadequate and finally broke free.

We passed truck loads of soldiers coming down to try to sort out the shambles – good luck!

We head off tomorrow from Darjeeling across a couple of ridge lines (4 hours drive for 70km!) to Kalimpong which is another hill station, quieter than Darjeeling but the assembly and launching place for all the early attempts on Everest including Hillary. We will stay in the pukka 1800’s hotel the climbers all used, just to get a bit of atmosphere.

The trip from Darjeeling to Kalimpong took about 3 hours for 45km. It was a seriously steep winding road down into theTeesta River valley then up the other side. At one stage we were held up in a line of several hundred vehicles while the bulldozers worked to clear a landslide blocking the way. 

It is very peaceful on these waits as the noise of the vehicle bouncing around falls silent and we can observe the beautiful forest and hills. Numerous monkeys entertain alongside the road and because of the altitude it is about 22deg. A pity to get the signal to move on.

As predicted we found Kalimpong more sedate than Darjeeling. A very similar hill-station town but less traffic and better shops. We went for a walk to buy some famous Kalimpong cheese – brought by Jesuit missionaries a hundred years ago. I don’t think their missionary efforts were a roaring success but their dairy remains producing supposedly the only western style cheese in India. Its reputation is well deserved – a delicious vintage Cheddar flavour.

We pulled into the historic Himalayan Hotel (as previously mentioned harking back to the Raj and stopping place for every explorer, scientist and mountaineer for a hundred years. Fire places, oak panelling, brass trumpet record player and English club atmosphere). I noticed the vehicle leaning upon investigating a change in handling after a few bigger bumps and bangs in the last few kilometres up the hill into town. I discovered a broken rear spring main leaf and the axle had swung back about 75mm.

A phone call brought a mechanic to the hotel .An hour later he was back with a jacks and a helper, fitted a new genuine Suzuki spring complete with new bushes and pins. Total cost for parts and labour – $21.

Heading down the mountain we returned to the plains to travel through numerous tea plantations in the Dooars District, going east towards the twin India/Bhutan border towns of Jaigon/Phuentsoling. Along the way we passed Jaldapara Refuge where some of the last One-horned Rhinos are thankfully making a comeback.

Arriving at the Bhutan border gate we were met by Megraj with whom I had worked for three months ten years ago at the Bhutan Food Corporation while doing logistics for the UN World Food Program. Megraj had us in a brand new hotel in Jaigon because, not having Bhutan visas, Phuentsoling was out of bounds. We had a very pleasant meal that evening with Megraj, his wife, daughter and grandson. Being Bhutanese they can just wander back and forth across the border so they just walked into India to join us.

Departing early we set off towards the Brahmaputra River along a particularly crook road. It took 9 hours solid, continuous driving to cover 350km. I had travelled this road many times during my stay in Bhutan (the roads in Bhutan were so steep and winding it was quicker to come down into India then cross back into Bhutan after a hundred km or more). 

As before there were still regular threats from numerous independence splinter groups in Assam. We were commenting on the lack of trucks on the road when we came upon a village with perhaps a thousand trucks all parked up. We drove past them and started seeing armed border police and regular army soldiers all along the road. We were stopped a couple of times and questioned then let go. Finally along the deserted road came a truck full of soldiers leading at 40kph a line of trucks 5 kilometres long nose to tail..

It was too hard to have two escorts so the trucks going in our direction had been waiting all night for the west-bound escort to arrive to turn around to accompany them on their way east.

It was good for us as the road was clear for 100km through the threat area. We were stopped at one check point and the young officer said “You must go with the escort. Don’t travel lonely.” Hop on the back of a line of 1,000 crawling trucks for 100km – I don’t think so! We opted to travel lonely without further incident.

We arrived a Guwahati the biggest city in Assam on the Brahmaputra. It was a noisy, dirty industrial centre with no interest other than it was a major base for the heroic efforts of the air crews flying “over the hump” to resupply southernChina during WW2.

Next morning we set off south, back into the hills crossing into the first of the remote border states of Meghalaya. As we climbed, the putrid smog of the Brahmaputra valley dispersed and we started to actually be able to see across a valley. Arriving in the lovely hill town of Shillong we booked into another Raj period rambling hotel. All very old world with fireplaces in the rooms. Shillong was capital of Assam for many years when it could be reached easily fromCalcutta but since the formation of Bangladesh it now takes a 1,500km drive to get here so has reverted to a leafy hill resort with many schools, large hospitals and a very large military complex positioned in park-like barracks.

We will spend two nights here before heading east for our appointments in Imphal and drive up to the Burma border.

India Final

Check point
Nr border

Shillong proved to be an interesting stay. Bev wandered around a small lake attached to the botanical gardens and, being Sunday, it was crowded with families. She was continuously stopped by people to have her photo taken with them so they could show pictures of their blonde friend from Australia.

The weather was just right, dry and in the low 20’s. In another couple of months it will be very different. Only 30 minutes drive away sits the town of Mawsynram which in a recent monsoon season had 26,000mm (1,000 inches) of rain over a 4 month period only slightly more than average. The area around Shillong is recognized as the wettest place on earth.

Bev and I wandered down the hill to the Shillong archery field to witness what must be the strangest gambling venue in the world. Every afternoon, 7 days a week, a large group gathers at 3.30pm. The archery field is in a walled enclosure less than 50 metres square. A straw target about the size of a man is positioned in one corner and back from that is a long semi-circular covered (remember it rains a lot) walkway. All along the walkway archers from two different clubs each stack about a dozen small arrows in front of them. When the whistle blows everyone starts releasing their arrows at the target, seemingly hardly caring to aim. With only 10 minutes of shooting time and maybe 30 archers there is a continuous stream of arrows in the air and the target starts to look like a porcupine.

The whistle blows and shooting finishes. One asks the question, why? This is answered by looking at the dozen bookmaker’s stalls, it is a betting game. When shooting stops, officials go forward and pull the armloads of arrows from the target. Everyone crowds around as the judges stack the arrows in groups of 10 in a rack with small square boxes. At last the chief judge and a scrutineer from each club count the arrows – in our case this was 433. The judge calls out “33”; there is a sigh from the crowd who immediately leave the grounds, and a small number rush up to the bookies to collect their money. The whole show is over in 30 minutes.

The bet is on the last two digits so those who chose 33 win. It is nothing more than a roulette wheel with 100 numbers giving a 100:1 chance but a lot more interesting. If you took 50 numbers with the bookies you would have a good 2:1 chance. In other words you decide what your odds are by taking more numbers but like all gambling, even if you took 99 numbers, in the end you can never win!

Loading up the next morning early we headed into the hills to go to Silchur. This small city is on the bend of a large tributary of the Brahmaputra River which meant a day in the mountains before descending back down to near sea level and re-entering Assam. The road can only be described as terrible. Narrow bench-cuts in the mountains, broken or non-existent surface and temporary bridges across deep gorges were our lot for the day. In one of the few small towns we had a flat tyre, luckily near a tin lean-to which did puncture repairs.

While I stayed with the car Bev wandered out the back where hundreds of women were squatting down breaking up lumps of the locally mined coal with small hammers. Earning around $1 a day they produced such even lumps of coal you would think it had been put through a sorting screen. Alongside the heaps men were filling cane baskets with about 50kg of coal, then two of them would lift it onto the head of a third man who walked up a wooden ramp to dump it in the back of a truck. Hundreds of these head loads were required to fill the 10 ton truck to its standard 20 ton / 100% overload capacity. No wonder the roads were strewn with trucks with failed tyres, differentials and springs. 80% of the millions of trucks on the road are TATA, one of the worlds great industrial concerns – they even own Jaguar/Rover, airlines, steel works and have major shareholding in several Australian coal and iron ore mines.

From Silchur we now finally headed into the real frontier district. Up until very recently, a trip to Manipur state on the Burma border was very difficult for even Indians let alone foreigners. Indians needed Restricted Line permits and foreigners needed almost unobtainable Prohibited Area permits and had to travel in organized groups. It was only 220km from Silchur to Imphal and we could find lots of advice on the road but nobody who had actually traveled it! Leaving the Brahmaputra valley we were immediately embarked on one of the slowest, roughest journeys we had ever been on.

The road was far from busy and within 35km of Silchur we had wound up on a narrow rough road to about 5,000 feet. Here we entered the State of Manipur and were stopped by our first army check-point. There was lots of confusion and discussion about whether we were legal and even a suggestion that not having a Prohibited Area permit, although no longer required, still prevented our entry. Anyhow after the sergeant, called the Lieutenant, who called the Captain who called the Major, it was all smiles and in a flurry of passport stamping and we were away.

“How many foreigners have you had through here?”  “There were 6 Germans in an official bus last month but never anyone by themselves”.

As Piglet said to Pooh Bear, the road just got worserer and worserer. It was totally uncared for kilometers at a time forcing us to travel at 15-20kph in first and second gear. Being dry the potholes were full of talcum powder bulldust and having no air-conditioning our windows were down leaving us totally covered in white dust. Passing the occasional truck we had to race past bouncing at 30kph with our outside wheels knocking stones off a thousand foot drop into the valley below. Of course guard rails were something far into Manipur’s future.

The next of about 6 army checkpoints produced a request to carry two soldiers all the way to Imphal to go on leave. When it became obvious that refusal may result in “difficulties”  and delay in our further progress the two friendly young fellows climbed in the back to sit on the huge tin box I had purchased to contain our suitcases etc. They hung on, covered in dust and bouncing around, for the rest of the day.

After 10 hours driving from Silchar, it became instantly dark as it does in the tropics. The car lights were terrible and as the corners required maximum lock to negotiate they gave us little help to see around the turn. Suddenly the Suzuki stopped. A fuel blockage which stopped us 5 times in the next hour was extremely frustrating. Imphal was so close but we were still going up, up, up. Managing to get the car started each time we eventually plunged down a near vertical switchback road, feeling our way around darkened corners down into the huge Imphal valley. Dropping off our passengers we booked into the hotel 12 hours actual driving and only 220km from our morning start point.

The purpose of this section of the trip was to survey the border between India and Myanmar for a proposed First England to Australia Drive recreation in the future. We had found CK (his real name is totally beyond western tongues) who was a businessman also working for Manipur State Trade Development. He organized a trip around Imphal, which is a not unpleasant city. Of interest to me was the huge Commonwealth War Cemetery and Japanese War Cemetery. Imphal was the furthest the Japanese reached in their invasion of India and I was surprised by the size of the action with 7 Divisions involved. Bev was very interested in a visit to the local weavers who produce a wide variety of products on their ancient, huge wooden looms. The following day we went with CK 100km over the Naga Hills to the Myanmar border. This road is newly surfaced and, although very twisty (it is the first time I have ever seen Bev feeling car sick) only took a couple of hours. In 1928 when Birtles became the first person to cross from India to Burma almost exactly on the path of today’s road it took over 6 weeks. In an heroic effort he and his young Canadian co-driver Percy Stollery almost carried the car over these mountains emerging in Burma nearly starved and sick from malaria. True heroes they were!

The small twin towns of Moreh/Tammu are at the foot of the hills in the first of the great north/south valleys of Burma. About 5 km out of Moreh, the crossing between India and Myanmar consists of a WW2 temporary Bailey bridge on a deserted narrow road. There is a relaxed Indian Army check point a few hundred metres back on one side and a small blue tin shed with one man on the Myanmar side. In the one and half hours we sat on the edge of the pretty, small border river no cars and only two motorcycles crossed, without stopping at either check point. The governments have an agreement to allow locals to cross to access traditional cross-border tribal areas.

Back in town is the foot crossing and this was different. There is a continuous stream of people passing the gate (seemingly with no checks). They are all carrying huge loads on their heads from the Myanmar side. All things from vegetables to Chinese cotton goods came across. There is a man sitting in the shade on the Indian side with a note book which we later found out was the accounting for the trade across this international border. The volume is so high and the loads so varied that the official trade reports merely mention how many “head loads” have entered.

CK organized a press conference so we could promote our expedition and hopefully gather support. 15 journalist and a TV crew turned up at the hotel (news is pretty slow in Imphal) which resulted in a slot on the evening TV news plus front page articles with photos in at least 6 newspapers we were able to purchase next day.

Unfortunately only one was in English so who knows what facts they got confused. Free hotel accommodation, the first of what we hope is more support, was the immediate result.

We did our sums on a 2,000km drive all the way back to Kolkata, sold the car and hopped on a plane. After being cared for in the final couple of days by Ravi Kumar again, we negotiated support from the fabulous Tollygunge Club and have several influential people working throughout India on further support.