Update 01 December 2013
This update comes some weeks after our return to New Zealand from the survey in India. As we begin to go through the detail of our findings we are constantly reminded of scenarios and situations which now, viewed from our cosseted existence, seem somewhat surreal and preposterous. For instance, travelling east approaching sundown one evening I began to hear a faint squealing noise. I looked across at Lally; she was concentrating on maps and had not registered anything untoward. I continued another two or three kilometres but this faint sound was definitely persistent. I checked the T’s and P’s, everything was stable, I checked the mirrors more carefully to make sure nothing was hanging-off or dragging behind, but still this faint whining sound. In the setting sun I could see the hazy outline of what looked like a battered taxi following some distance behind but nothing unusual. As we slowed entering a township the battered taxi swung passed veering into our path coming to an abrupt halt. Four men casually step out and saunter towards us looking like phantoms from some Mad Max movie scene as dust billowed across the street. Upon opening the window I could see they were, in fact, police officers although their uniforms had not seen any kind of laundry for some considerable time; their transport was a patrol car but the lights and sirens merely glowed and squeaked respectively. They could utter not a word of English and my Hindi is restricted to ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’. Having made gesticulated greetings and mumbled sentences in our own dialects we waved a hand and bade farewell. The only other word I was able to decipher from the meeting was, ‘Rupee’ which, of course, I cannot translate!
The British built a wonderful network of railways beginning in the 1850’s but after 163 years the Indians do not appear to have mastered Level-crossing protocol? The scene defies description but this is how it works. The barrier falls in anticipation of the arriving train, the first vehicles arrive to dutifully await the passing locomotive. However, within minutes there maybe as many as twenty or thirty vehicles of one description or another waiting on either side. Timing has never been an accurate science in India and therefore the crossing is often closed for ten minutes or more. As more vehicles arrive some slip down the side of the waiting cars and trucks to ‘queue-jump’. Eventually both sides of the level crossing are completely filled with waiting conveyances of one description or another filling both sides of the road. Alas, in due course the train passes, the barrier is raised and everyone lurches forward like greyhounds from the starting gate to meet on the tracks in the tangle of horns and bumpers where they then spend the next ten minutes untangling themselves before finally continuing with their journey.
I have also studied, practiced, and questioned the meaning of the extraordinary Indian puppet-like head wobble which is surely grafted into their DNA; it can mean ‘yes’, ‘no’, anything or nothing. It has no class or caste, it is used universally by every and any Indian to mean whatever you want it to mean. Another craze I have noticed is what appears to be an obsession with hair, whether it be Henna, dreadlocks, shaved heads, or the multitude of barbers who also give a pleasant head massage as part of the service. Indeed, I have indulged in a haircut which was an expertly executed short back and sides; I’m not sure who’s out of touch, me or India? I suspect it’s me!
Sitting in my sun-drenched office, I realise the more I visit the country the more I find myself magnetised by India. I have made in the region of five or six visits and with each journey I gain more respect and awe for the people, the way of life, and the values they hold dear. John Brown introduced me, somewhat reluctantly, to the country but I shall be forever grateful to him for leading me across the threshold; I truly feel India helps us put our own lives in perspective.
The new mapping programmes I hoped would address some of the issues we faced with GPS constraints have turned-out to be even more of a hindrance and appear designed only for use in the ‘perfect world’ which, of course, doesn’t exist and to which India must be the Antithesis! Thankfully, we can create our own personalised map of the route and fool the GPS into thinking it’s legitimate. We have used this system successfully in the outback regions of Australia where accurate mapping is somewhat sketchy.
The new start date has been set for 12 September 2014 and the welcome dinner will be the previous evening. Lally has begun booking hotels, we have two regions where accommodation is in short supply and therefore need to cap the number of people joining although staff can be billeted in tents through the high-altitude sections if necessary.
Route Survey Update - 22 October 2013
A trip to the Taj Mahal is pretty much compulsory for everyone whilst in Agra; I have visited numerous times yet still it defies complete description, the scale and detail of the place is beyond my full elucidation. In 1631, the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child! Started in 1632 taking twenty thousand craftsmen & labours more than twenty years to complete seems trifling when you are actually ‘on site’ and moving through the halls and chambers that make up this vast epitaph to love; the ‘romantic’ in me still finds this devotion to a departed lover spellbinding. We also surveyed Akbars tomb. Akbar was probably the greatest Mughal Emperor of all time, and it was his son who built the Taj Mahal. This mausoleum is simplistic by comparison to the Taj Mahal and receives only a handful of visitors in contrast, although it is huge, it gives off a nice sense of an unostentatious man.
We spent some hours exiting Agra in an attempt to find a path which doesn’t clog-up with ‘Tuk tuks’ and creeping rickshaws; and here I must explain how the system works. Entering the melee and before the gap is large enough for a fullsize vehicle a ‘Tuk tuk’ or suchlike will dive into the opening from any direction to fill the available space, thus making headway can be painfully slow. The method therefore is not to leave space for even a starving rat because there are plenty of those roaming the streets too! Conversely, once clear of the city a large modern dual-carriageway opened-up in front of us whisking us along at a very respectable pace. I am also jolly pleased with the route we have chosen into Jaipur; the ‘Pink City’ appears fresh and bustling with interesting shops and bazaars along the open streets. Crossing back into Rajasthan evokes images of kings’, queens’ and maharajas’ and our chosen lodging is the former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the palace has conventionally colonial décor, sumptuous rooms and several restaurants to disrupt ones girth. Originally built in 1835 as residence for the queen’s favourite handmaiden, it was later refurbished as the royal hunting lodge and guesthouse and here we can enjoy the splendour of royal India at its best. I could spend the evening driving in and out the gates; the boys in control perform a rather amateur over-zealous stamping and saluting ceremony each time you appear, all done with the utmost seriousness. However, a beautiful smile does hover behind their stern gaze which can be brought to the surface with very little effort. Also in Rajasthan, we see again, the local ladies wearing the most gorgeous vibrant coloured saris and riding pillion, perched elegantly side-saddle aboard the typical 100cc Honda motorcycle, many of them cradling the latest addition to the family.
Turning south we have just one nasty section of 10 or 12 kilometres before the road improves to become an easy flowing provincial highway which leads us to toward Ranthambore National Park where you will have a last chance to spot Tigers’ in the wild. I’m more than happy with the accommodation Lally has selected for an overnight in the locality and combined with a short, 3 hour, driving day should give everyone the opportunity to take a safari. Having explored the services offered to tourists wishing to glimpse a Tiger we hope to reserve the best options by booking early.
The fort and old city of Chittor is the destination for our final rest day of the event. We will be staying at a nearby palace where we met the Maharaja whose family has presided over 90 local villages for the last thirteen generations; a very well educated and interesting man who showed us some of the more ‘rural’ roads of his domain. While exploring the district he spoke of how they settle disputes in the community, no weighty administrative jargon to muddy the waters, the Maharaja’s word is final and passing through the villages it was obvious he is respected and held in very high regard.
At one of the hotels we inspected we came upon two Elephants with their ‘Mahouts’ offering rides into the bush. Animal welfare isn’t high on the agenda out here and therefore it was refreshing to see these elegant giants so beautifully ‘turned-out’ and obviously content.
I shall have to eat my words, in an earlier missive I declared there wasn’t an uncongested open-road in the country, but after much searching we found it! And just where we needed to leap 150 kilometres forward we found an excellent stretch of fast dual-carriageway; that isn’t to say there wasn’t the odd bullock cart or Tata approaching down the oncoming fast lane at a steady gait but exceptions have to be made. Neither was I surprised to find cows lying peacefully in the fast lane nonchalantly chewing the cud!
On our final run into the city of Mumbai we spotted a bus so crammed with passengers we could only make-out body parts oozing from every aperture and the vehicle crabbing heavily down the road enabling us to read the writing down the side whilst following it! We also noticed girls weeding the central reservation of a six-lane motorway with just a bent spoon; not a traffic cone, barrier or warning sign in sight! This beautifully illustrates that after two and a half months of survey we can still be surprised at what we see each day. Not a single day passes without coming across a scene that either alarms or amuses us; indeed, many scenarios could come straight from a Monty Python sketch. Assume nothing and expect the unexpected are the two overriding comments I would make to anyone visiting for the first time. I wouldn’t go as far as to say India should carry a health warning but I think all its international borders should display a sign in large letters over each immigration desk reading, “WELCOME TO OUR WORLD” then perhaps in smaller letters underneath, “Warning:- It’s not your World.” For those who have never experienced life lived in the raw then India is a wonderful place to start. We both have been truly in awe of the outright friendliness and tenacity of the people; Lally commented she has never heard a single word of complaint from anyone we have met. They all, without exception, get on with living life and simply appear happy to have a job and their health; principles we both admire.
Route Survey Update - 15 October 2013
The journey between Shimla and Rishikesh welcomes us back to the India we left two or more weeks ago with warmer air and a more humid climate. The pace of life too appears more relaxed with an abundant growth of everything green sprouting from the once more fertile soils. I'm pleased to report, we found an outstanding new road curving and twisting through the hills and valleys south of Shimla with almost no other traffic. It was wonderful to enjoy the heavy tropical growth pressing on the road and to snatch views across the hills framed by lush vibrant growth with monkeys dancing in the foliage above us.
Nearing a bend, I caught glimpse of a large shadow falling from sight; it was obviously an antelope or deer? As I slowed and moved to the edge of the road Lally peered into the undergrowth and suddenly became very animated. A high-pitched voice began squealing, "It's a Leo_ard, it's a Leo_ard"! I have several years experience of excited Argentine vocabulary, I am also aware of Lally's love of aerobics and exercise, however I was reasonably certain she could not be so excited to see a leotard; therefore it must be the other.... a leopard, and sure enough we had spotted our first leopard just ten feet from the car.
We arrived in the vicinity of Corbett National Park close to evening and booked into the lodge where we hope to overnight our group. The rustic feel and simple rooms are welcoming rather than basic and relaxing amid the natural surroundings was very pleasant. There are safaris available for those wishing to get into the dense bush of the area although Tigers' are not easy to come across. Our original itinerary for this section includes a leg to overnight in Nainital but having found almost nothing at the road's end except narrow congested streets and what can only be described as overenthusiastic write-ups in the guidebooks we decided to modify the route. There seems little reason to travel the extra distance when we can use the time to enjoy a more interesting location.
The drive from Corbett National Park sees us moving back into regions more intensively cultivated with beautifully manicured fields where every last corner is expected to be productive. It is a long day's drive to Agra filling the entire day but we pass through many and various rural settings each being lived with a fervour that we, as Europeans, should take note of and learn to respect. These people make use of everything, they waste not, they work themselves to the bone, and you will never hear anything but laughter and see anything but smiles.
However, in the next breath I must utter.... 'Ghastly and glorious' ...all at the same time. India! Adjectives fail me! Exasperating, exhilarating, exciting, invigorating and infuriating to name but a few. Undoubtedly, you will at times become frustrated with the culture but likewise I'm sure some foreigners become frustrated with methods we consider to be correct and indeed normal in our own societies. Nevertheless, I must also stress that India really can provide outstanding service. Some may describe it as 'fawning' others as 'exemplary' but, universally the standards of service have been exceptional. The juxtaposing scenarios of one single day defy explanation; the perfect hotel in Agra with drinks by the pool and views of the Taj Mahal having just experienced another Indian traffic-jam where, it appears, common sense isn't that common!
I can remember hammering along the road between Aligarh and Agra with John Brown some years ago on a previous survey and after much to-ing & fro-ing we came away with nothing usable; for this reason I'd built-in some time to cover the various options. And yes we did thrash up & down some portions of the same road trying to smooth the path but those 95 kilometres have received vast improvement since 2007 and apart from one bottleneck entering Hathras we hope the route we have surveyed will not clog-up. As mentioned previously, and I want to drive the point home, early starts are the best alternative.
This link http://youtu.be/Skl3qiBQHrc gives a snapshot of everyday life on the streets of India.
Route Survey Update - 4 October 2013
Oh dear, where to start? Brand new sheets of corrugated iron placed on the road for passing traffic to drive over creating a flat sheet, because in fine Indian style, we all know a flat sheet will go further than a corrugated sheet! Or the filling station gantry being welded high above with sparks flying while we fill with fuel below! Further, the boys will surely be blind by thirty because of the two welding sets running one man is using a pair of cheap sun-glasses for protection and the other is just closing his eyes and hoping he gets it pretty much in the right spot; welding by 'feel'. I've spotted more than one automotive bodyshop advertising 'Denting and Painting' and from the outside I'd say they are experts at the former but perhaps with less finesse for the later. All classic stuff!
As Europeans, we are familiar with the 'Nazi' Swastika but I have only recently learnt of the beginnings of this well-known symbol. The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates back to the Indus Valley civilization and it remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, primarily as a tantric symbol of auspiciousness. The word 'swastika' comes from the Sanskrit and literally translated means, 'It is good'. Unfortunately, the swastika has become strongly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, and death; it is now largely stigmatized due to the changed connotations of the symbol. Indeed, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries if used as a symbol of Nazism but its true beginnings are here in northern India where its use goes hand-in-hand with everything that is good.
The approach to the Himalayan region is gradual with the only noticeable change that of the over laden trucks creeping even more slowly over the hills and descending into the Drass Valley we came across a truck, back axle removed, sitting forlornly in an isolated spot awaiting some kind of repair. I have no doubt it will be massively over laden hauling goods again in due course; the resourcefulness of the natives along with their ingenuity is truly inspiring.
Basgo gompa lies amongst the ruins of an old palace and city; it's realistic and atmospheric although you'll need a little imagination to complete the scene because sadly it appears a little rundown and shabby these days. There are only so many temples a man can take and I'm beginning to become 'all templed out' although the temple at Alchi is undeniably distinctive with some fine old murals covering the walls; once you get passed the hawkers selling cheap trinkets to the innocent. The parking too is a very Indian affair!
Some roads of the Ladakh region are ridiculously pretty; simply stunning and certainly this section could be considered the highlight of the journey for some. We stopped at the meeting of two roads high on the Altiplano where basic 'Parachute Cafes' offer meals and coffee. The temperature was a comfortable 4 or 5 degrees Centigrade, it was sunny and peaceful, a lovely spot to imbibe the experience. On the flipside, I must also report the very poor condition of some roads, one section of 100km with badly washed-out and potholed tarmac. Another high altitude section of 85km took us more than four hours to cover but we cannot possibly tell exactly what the conditions may be like in a year's time because of the extremes of weather. On the whole, you should leave thoughts of smooth, wide-open roads behind because they don't exist out here. However, we found an outstanding road down into one of the valleys on an 'off the beaten track' segment which the RATBAGS of our group will enjoy. The RATBAGS (Rough And Tumble Boys And GirlS) are a newly formed faction whose pleasure it is to explore those places less visited.
The sections we have surveyed for days 16, 17 and 18 are outstanding in the extreme, adjectives are hard to muster describing the scale and beauty of these mountains; imagine the Swiss Alps on steroids! We stopped at one particular spot and gawked in wonder at the confluence of two rivers tight between sheer ravines with our tiny road clinging to the side. We then spent several days thrashing back and forth on the infamous Hindustan - Tibet road trying to break the journey in two. Lally didn't actually call me a bastard, as such, but simply brought into question my ancestry; she is convinced there must be an Indian truck driver amongst my forebears! Anyway, we came away empty-handed not being able to find even half-decent accommodation for our clients and although we now have a long day into Shimla it's a real driver's day with some spectacular scenery. Alas, on these sections landslides are common and 'Shooting Stones' can pepper from above, for this reason we shall build an extra day into the schedule to make allowance for possible road interruptions. As we descend from the Himalayas proper the terrain becomes less abrupt, the temperatures rise slowly and we begin to see small pockets of green amid the foreboding, barren land. Descending still further, the ground becomes fertile with lush growth filling every crevice, indeed the district produces 80% of the countries apples which are harvested throughout July, August and September. Another noticeable change is the return of India's trumpeting Tatas' as well as the ceaseless crush of humanity.
Arriving at the Wildflower Hall nestled into the hills behind Shimla is in such contrast to the preceding days as to feel like some kind of dreamy fantasy. Greeted with hot-towels and welcome drinks before being ushered to our sumptuous room reminded us that tranquillity does exist and is, in fact, important to ones sanity. We were glad to spend a day attending to administrative details and to take stock before embarking on the next section of the route.
This link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBNAOAC38M0 gives a snap-shot of the scenery as we return to more reasonable altitudes.
Route Survey Update - 14 September 2013
We changed plans at the last moment before leaving Amritsar; I am acutely aware of potential problems with our proposed itinerary due to political unrest in the Kashmir region and wanted to have some kind of 'backup' route surveyed. I came to the conclusion it would be more time efficient to check roads and hotels between Amritsar and Rothang La before embarking on the long Kashmiri sections, it also meant we could survey them in the direction we might need them if unrest were to interfere with our plans. We were both astonished at the vibrant growth in the hills leading to the Himalayas. At this time of year with the rain easing and temperatures still warm we see a flourishing increase of everything green. The landscapes too are more abrupt and steep as the hills just get more and more intimidating. We had our first experience of any real altitude on this trip, as we crossed Rothang La the GPS registered 3985 metres which equates to 12,951 feet. Of course, at this level we are well above the 'tree line' with just a bare rocky landscape and isolated snow scraps amid barren tundra. Another noticeable change was that of the local population, not only does it become less crowded and chaotic but the features of those around us become more Tibetan and Nepali, we begin to see the far eastern influence in the blood of the indigenous population.
I was not entirely happy with options we'd surveyed towards Manali so for the return journey we detoured on more minor roads and what we found was two particularly scenic sections on narrow winding roads, in some cases, with precipitous drops into the fairytale valley below. We also visited the colonial hill station of Dalhousie where a crumbling mansion of a property has been welcoming guests for more than 100 years and still exudes a wonderful sense of history.
The road leaving Jammu north is famously busy and unpleasant combining a very poor road surface with a never-ending stream of over-laden trucks and true to form the first 100km was horrid taking us more than three hours to cover, making any headway was hard work; I shall certainly have some explaining to do when I arrive at the 'Pearly Gates'! However, after a check-point where we got permits to travel in Kashmir the conditions improved and once clear of the Jawahar Tunnel the scenery began to take on an altogether larger dimension.
Arriving late and exhausted at one hotel I was ushered towards a parking space immediately outside the foyer, the sign in my headlights announced 'Lessabled Parking'! It brought a smile to my tired face.
Continuing north, exiting the steep valleys the road begins to open out as we neared Srinagar with frequent small villages dotted along the route. As dusk fell we arrived in the town with an appointment to inspect a property in the evening; the palace certainly has a welcoming entrance hall with polished stone floors and pillars. We ate well in their restaurant before finding more humble accommodation. Lally has been working tirelessly checking services and inspecting competing hotels but imagine for a moment the interaction between an Argentine and an Indian all conducted in stilted English; I have been requested to act as Argentine/Indian interpreter on more than one occasion! Another of the hotels we visited was surrounded with tight security involving many Indian army soldiers and repeated searches of the car and x-ray scanning of all baggage. Surely this cannot be the norm, we asked each other? On entering the lobby, Lally hastily exclaimed, "That's Zubin Mehta"! On further enquiry we found he had given a concert in the city the evening before and was a guest at the hotel. We spent a full day in Srinagar attending to administration and garnered more detailed information of the route ahead using local knowledge.
This district has a large Muslim following, the girls are covered from top to toe, the men favour shaggy beards and prayers are broadcast over poor quality sound systems at deafening levels, for one less in tune with the faith it appears odd to be woken at 5am in such a manner! From Srinagar, we turned east towards higher mountains climbing steadily all day; Zoju La at 11,544ft (3552m) is considered the main entrance to the Ladakh region although we had to wait a couple of hours to cross while earthmoving equipment cleared a landslide. The military presence also steps-up a notch with large encampments, facilities for high altitude warfare training and army personnel everywhere.
We surveyed a marvellous section on lonely gravel roads climbing to 14,240ft (4382m) before we came across a badly washed-out culvert after 52km. I drove 150km to the opposite end to survey the rest of the road because I was fairly certain it was not abandoned. Sure enough we came upon teams of men wielding sledge-hammers to break huge rocks down into manageable chunks, they are then manhandled to an area where women and girls as young as twelve were breaking them down further into regular sized and graded gravel; this gravel is then used to repair the road surface. No rock crushing technology other than hammer and chisel. Further to that, you may be able to guess I have been inspecting various mechanical contraptions with a passing interest during this recce and the archetypal two-wheeled camel carts drew my attention. They nearly all use a large diameter, very heavy duty, split-rim aircraft type wheel and tyre from the same application; it must come from an Avro Constellation or suchlike.
We have taken interest in the earnest agriculture going on in what appear unfertile heavy clay soils; however, stopping to interact with locals and seeing firsthand the produce coming off the land we were very impressed with the harvesting and drying of a bumper rice crop.
Lally has spent many months poring over reviews, recommendations, and hotel websites to single-out the best on offer, nevertheless our overnight in Kargil at an hotel with very dubious credentials reminded me of an episode in Brazil whilst survey with John Brown when we had to spend the night in a brothel as the only accommodation available; I specifically remember the mirrors on the ceiling in that particular lodging! Whilst surveying we occasionally need to overnight unexpectedly and Lally and I found ourselves close to the only guesthouse for many miles just before dark one night. We approached the shabby-looking homestead asking for a bed and meal and came away well rested with full stomachs. The engineer in me was particularly impressed with the reflection cooker in the yard, a most delicious device using a large concave reflective dish to concentrate the sun's rays on the cooking vessel above.
I was hugely happy to find a lovely mountain road between Drass and Kargil on brand-new super smooth twisting tarmac with not another vehicle in site; a real pleasure to drive. As we travel through this stark and beautiful landscape I look up into the high clefts between summits and can see small glaciers forcing new paths into the hillside.
Leh is the capital of the Ladakh region and centre for all manner of tours and activities. Whilst Lally attended unending meetings with suppliers I had the chance to edit and update GPS mapping documents and write some words to keep you informed. Khardung La is less than 100km from Leh and we decided the planned rest day in Leh could include a trip to the stunning Nubra Valley taking in this high pass. We crossed Khardung La which at 18,380ft (5649m) was the highest motorable pass in the world until 2003 when Marmik La near Pangong Tso Lake took that accolade by a paltry 200ft; this road is absolutely outstanding, the scale of the mountains with colossal valleys dividing them is beyond description. We arrived in the tiny, quaint settlement of Diskit to enjoy the main bazaar in full swing on a weekend.
We have more roads to survey while here before we begin south and east towards the Spiti Valley but this link http://youtu.be/Ccr0znno4jQ gives a view of crossing the world's highest roads.
Route Survey Update - 2 September 2013
As fate would have it, we met Hormazd when leaving the offices of a shipping agent in the cut and thrust of Mumbai downtown; I spotted the rather nice pre-war Dodge sedan nosing out from a tiny alley into the hurly-burly. Offering my life to the Gods', I strode into the melee of cars and people to make an introduction. We were immediately ushered into the dark confines of his collection and treated like old friends. Hormazd has more than twenty vintage and post-vintage cars some of which are truly exotic including a Rolls twenty and a gorgeous 25/30. He invited us to contact numerous friends who may be able to help with logistics and officialdom; we also hope they may join us for one section of the event through Jammu & Kashmir.
Our first day on the road heading north out of Mumbai was productive although frustrating; cars, carts, carriages, and cattle all meandering to and fro across a six lane expressway with their own set of 'rules' certainly concentrates the mind and enriches the driving experience. As the monsoon ebbs the rice paddies and the countryside show an emerald green lushness which come straight from a Peter Jackson film set. Further north we checked alternative routes and came out with very little to show for hours of bone-shaking secondary roads although one shortcut proved worthwhile.
It is certainly extraordinary how much value the average Indian can get from his litre of petrol! The current record number of persons transported on one motorbike that we have observed is 6 but that only appears to be possible if at least two or three of those people are babies; whereas the Tuk-Tuk record currently stands at 17. However, if you have a 'gas guzzling' Mahindra you are expected to cope with a good deal more than twenty passengers!
We watched bullock carts loaded with sugarcane meandering down the fast lane of the wrong carriageway (ie oncoming) with children younger than ten years of age sprawled on top of the load controlling the unresponsive beast as mighty Tatas' raised a cacophony from one of India's best siren orchestras. The people of this country unquestionably mean to use their time and resources carefully and on occasion combine it with a sense of humour; one bumper sticker on a vastly over laden truck (with canvas showing through his tyres) reading, "Safety isn't expensive, it's Priceless." Another common but juxtaposing site is that of an individual walking bare-foot, dressed in rags, but animated in deep conversation on a Smartphone!
After noticing some rather 'quaint' hotel names we began to take more interest and have so far spotted 'Hotel Panik', 'Hotel Comfort', 'Hotel Delight', with others using such temptation as Honest, Relish, Lucky, and Good Choice but my favourite has to be the 'Hotel Goodluck' and from the outside I'd say you'll need it!
In the trophy room at one of the palaces we inspected I counted 9 tigers amongst several hundred creatures adorning the walls. We were told the Maharaja moved his hunting grounds to Africa after it became 'frowned upon' in India in the late 1950s' but stopped hunting altogether in 1978.
Gujarat is renowned for its work ethic, is prosperous and businesslike, indeed many of India's successful individuals are Gujarati including Ratan Tata of the truck manufacturing empire, also Mahatma Gandhi who lead the country for a number of years and who spoke against partition during independence. Gujarat is a 'dry' state, in other words prohibition; except foreign tourists can apply for an alcohol exemption. We thought we had better check exactly what this meant and how a permit might be obtained (our duty, you understand). I have to report a farcical scenario ensued involving eight signatures and a copy of your passport, all overseen by a most fearsome matriarch the like of which I haven't seen since I wore short-trousers in the fourth form!
We saw beautiful oxen in harness drawing a plough in lush green surroundings, the monsoons combination of heat and moisture certainly makes everything grow. From casual observance, the men appear to ride around on 100cc Indian built Honda motorcycles while the women work like hell in the fields and can be seen walking down the roadside carrying huge loads upon their heads. Visiting one village we found the girls milk the cow, churn the butter, make the cheese, grind the corn, and make the bread while the more senior Men sit cross-legged in conversation drinking an Opium concoction!
Rajasthan is the 'Land of Kings' with more palaces than any other province, it was wonderful to arrive at The Lake Palace in Udaipur after a long drive with difficult conditions as night fell. The greeting is soothing as you clamber abroad a small craft which guides you to the exquisite hotel in the centre of Lake Pichola; just a single night in this salubrious palace surrounded by glass smooth water seems a waste when coffered with such unsurpassed service and attention. However, Jodhpur our next destination, also has unparalleled luxurious accommodation at Umaid Bhawan Palace; one of the world's largest private residences and fortuitously part of the palace is managed as a hotel. Named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present owners of the palace, this colossal establishment has 347 rooms and serves as the principal residence of the Jodhpur royal family. We could not help but be impressed with the service and style of the place and are happy to include it in our itinerary.
We passed Bishnois communities who believe all life, however inconsequential, is sacred and have practiced bio-diversity for more than 500 years. Their Guru gave the message to protect trees and wildlife when nobody could predict that harming the environment means harming yourself. We were given the opportunity to visit a tiny village, meet the elders and to see how beautiful yet simple life can be.
Turning west the landscapes become drier and more hardy with desert plants beginning to appear; a tiny, delicate yellow flower in particular seems to thrive with little moisture. I have not travelled into the western deserts of India before; you will enjoy the open spaces, the lack of people, the clear roads, and the harsh climate. The lack of traffic and good roads is undoubtedly a welcome change allowing you to relax and immerse yourself into the culture and at this time of year the temperatures are considered comfortable in the mid-forties Centigrade.
Arriving in Jaisalmer we needed to inspect hotels and excursions for a planned rest day on the event; the camel safari we both took, while interesting, left us moving with a more delicate gait after four hours strapped to the back of the loping beast and can only be recommended for the 'diehard' nomads of our group!
Continuing north moving parallel to the Indira Gandhi Canal, we stopped at one point next to a reasonable size fire smouldering heavily and with plenty of damp fuel it was likely to continue for days. Making noises and using gesticulation we ascertained they were the local kiln firing service, we were shown beautifully crafted jugs and pots.
During the 19th century in the Shekhawati region shrewd merchants lived frugally to save huge fortunes and construct fine mansions for their families; these days many lie in ruins or are simply abandon but, Lally has managed to find a charming 'Haveli' (private mansion) converted into lodgings where we can overnight to break the journey north and discover some of the intricate artwork smothering these remarkable homes.
From here it's a long drive to our last major city of the north, Amritsar. The first hour is on poor, narrow roads connecting us to better highways where we can average 60+kph. Amritsar itself is archetypal of many Indian cities with modern construction going-on amid what appears to be an accepted chaos and further to my observations on traffic rules I am still perplexed as to the traffic light etiquette? I'm sure some valuable work could be done by optometrists on colour blindness!
We visited and made notes on the border closing ceremony between Pakistan and India at Wagah; to be honest the hype and excitement involved in the choreographed display needs some refining although it will make you smile for the absurdity of it all. The Golden Temple is undoubtedly the cities draw-card, the gold-plated gurdwara or dome glitters in the weak sunshine surrounded by a placid pool of sacred water. Sikhism's holiest shrine brings millions of pilgrims from all over the world and never ceases to impress even the most cynical observer; this really is a 'must see'.
Route Survey Update - 21 August 2013
Following some 30 hours of travel from New Zealand, we arrived in Mumbai jaded but glad to have escaped the confines of the man-made atmosphere that modern air travel now promotes. Our journey from the airport through the hectic busy streets to collect our rental vehicle reminded me of why I love India so much! The smells (not all nice), the sounds (all of them loud), and the sights (so typically Indian) all combined to re-vitalised our weary mood. Lally was incredulous at daily life passing by the open window of our tiny dilapidated Maruti taxi as it barged its way amongst the colossal Tatas' and Ashok Leylands' that keep this nation fed and watered.
We had two meetings within the first two hours of arrival but thankfully our hosts were keen to meet our needs; we made some valuable introductions and friends.
Getting behind the wheel again to muddle our way towards the Taj Mahal Hotel gave me feelings of 'deja vu' reminding me of working here previously with John Brown. In retrospect, I am not sure I was aware of how much I learned in those years working with one of the most particular and exacting, indeed (some would say) awkward, rally organiser's of the time; I am hugely indebted to John and Johanna for their faith in me and the many opportunities I was offered.
With an outside temperature of nearly 40 centigrade, entering the cool, welcoming and restrained interior of the hotel was, I felt, like stepping back in time to the days of the Raj. With orderly peace, and quiet voices, we were offered a cool drink before being ushered to our immaculate room where our dusty, travel-stained, bags were already waiting.
We showered and changed before an evening meal of delicious Indian fare washed down with a grateful glass of wine. After returning to our room with full stomachs, sleep was not an effort.
Our first full day coping with India and all its foibles reminded me why one needs to have a long fuse and a gentle demeanour. Even getting, what Europeans' might call, simple tasks completed seems to require multiple signatures and authorisations; this may of course be a residue of the British Raj. Lally inspected competing hotels while I organised 'phone SIM cards and a 'Dongal'; a device using telephone signal allowing connection to the internet.
Studying road behaviour I have come to conclusion that most 'regulations' are simply advisories and that certainly headlights, motorcycle helmets and any form of indication to let other know your intentions are considered accessories; however, the horn is mandatory and should be used repeatedly at every opportunity! We chuckled our way across the city ensconced in the rear of a beautifully dented Indian built Fiat taxi sharply drawing breath on numerous occasions although the whole sensational display all happens at between 4 and 17 mph!
Lally spent the following days moving around the city, inspecting an assortment of hotels, venues and restaurants in an effort to find something with an Indian flavour yet European quality. Visiting prospective venues and attractions is a time-consuming task and one needs to be conscious of the Indian predilection for agreeing to anything and everything even if your request cannot possibly be fulfilled. I began work on the vehicle, firstly, buying simple tools to enable me to fit tripmeter and satellite tracking systems. We had found a perfect stretch of road close to the hotel and decided to get up early on Sunday morning to calibrate the tripmeter before the daily mayhem developed. With this done and still very little pandemonium on the roads we took the opportunity to begin 'roadbooking' the route out of the city. This is one aspect of India that I must impress on anyone wishing to join us, you will need to get used to early starts. There is a window of 3 hours between 6am and 9am when reasonable progress can be made after which the wheels grind almost to a halt and the horror begins; although it is a good-natured 'horror' and a worthwhile experience.
Route Survey Update - 20 July 2013
Having spent many months in research, we can now officially
launch our latest event encompassing many of the highlights of the north and western
states of India. This latest escapade is provisionally planned to start and
finish in Mumbai on 9 September 2014 covering 30 days and almost 7,000
kilometres. Lally has flights and a vehicle booked to begin the Route Survey on
13 August this year. When we arrive, the monsoon will still be in full swing in
the southern section of our route but I have worked in India in the past and am
acutely aware that we must expect the unexpected and therefore need to give
ourselves a comfortable time-frame. Firstly, surveying congested city streets
can be time-consuming, secondly, research of the far western deserts of
Rajasthan will not be affected by the monsoon, and finally, the Himalayan
portion of the route (also not affected by monsoon) provides a narrow window of
opportunity for travel before snow closes the high-altitudes regions; it is for
these reasons we will need to cope with wetter weather for the first portion of
Lally is working in conjunction with our Indian representative
and together they have formulated a schedule allowing us to cherry-pick the more
acclaimed attractions within our reach. Travelling into the Ladakh and Zanskar
Ranges also needs careful planning with issues of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
as well as more rudimentary accommodation. We are well-informed as to what our
clientele enjoy from these journeys and intend to ensure we meet your