Jammu-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh (3 days, 820km)
Within five minutes of starting from Jammu, I was stranded at a work site. A Sardarji agreed to guide me to the highway. After some Hamiltonisque driving, the Sardarji swerved his car to one side and gave detailed instructions for the road ahead. He dismissed my expressions of gratitude with folded hands. The solo trans-Himalayan Expedition was underway with guidance from a guardian angel.
The highlight of driving to Dras was the rough ride over Zoji La at 11,649ft. The underdone roads that pass between jagged rocky sentinels on both sides and the amazing scenery take your mind away from the treacherous route and the rarefied air. Dras is the coldest place on the earth after Siberia. Winter temperature goes down to minus 45 degrees Celsius. It is the first major village after Zoji La and is known as The Gateway to Ladakh.
Fotu La, at 13,479ft is the highest point between Kargil and Leh. There was exceptional landscape on offer, showcasing nature's art. But, that was not the highest I got that day. At 18,380ft the Khardung La is the highest motorable road in the world and driving to the crest of the pass was an indescribable experience.
Leh-Manali-Shimla-Mussoorie-DehraDun (4 days, 1,175km)
The Leh-Manali route is open only between May and October. Even the defence bases are non-functional in the harsh winter months. The average altitude is 4,000m. The Tanglang La at 5,328m is considered the second highest motorable pass in the world. Gradually, snowfall became heavier and thicker. It became awfully cold and dry. The car began to slow down and lose traction. I feared the engine would sputter and die. At a distance, I saw two supply trucks slowly making their way to the crest of the pass. I sped up, as fast as the conditions permitted, to overtake the supply trucks so that, even if the car stopped, I would be able to get her towed by one of the trucks.
Fifty-five km short of Shimla, I rear-ended a truck that had braked without warning while going downhill; its rear lights were not functioning. The impact was not severe but the bonnet of my vehicle had caved, affecting the grill. The truck driver told me that he had to brake suddenly as cattle crossed the road! The radiator was damaged and the coolant had drained completely. Mercifully, Sharma’s Garage was not far away and I got the damage attended to.
The Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi River serves to irrigate, provide drinking water and generates 1000MW hydroelectric power. The drive over the dam is truly an awesome experience.
The road beyond Srinagar to Rudraprayag has sharp winding turns. The fractured phyllite rocks provided a superb backdrop to the blue green waters of the Alaknanda River. Around 30km short of Rudraprayag, disaster struck. While negotiating a steep winding right-hand curve, I turned closer to the middle of the road to avoid skidding on round rocks near the edge. Unfortunately, a jeep taxi coming in the opposite direction also turned closer to the middle to avoid similar rocks on the other side.
The impact of the side collision was so severe that I thought I would lose control of the steering and go down the gorge. The Ford on-road service promised to have a flat truck in place within a few hours to take the car for repairs. I left the car and went to Srinagar to find assistance. That turned out to be a costly mistake. When I got back to the accident site, I found that the left front window had been smashed. There was glass shrapnel everywhere. A Samsung notepad, a GoPro camera, a mobile phone, batteries and chargers had all been stolen.
DehraDun-Lucknow-Behaliya (Nepal)-Gorakhpur-Darjeeling-Jaigaon (4 days, 2,145km)
The car was expertly repaired in Dehradun in two days and I re-routed via Lucknow as the civil disturbance in Nepal had led to closure of all its western borders and Behaliya was my last hope of driving through Nepal.
The volatile situation had prevented smooth movement of cargo into and out of Nepal for months resulting in a huge pile up of trucks. Ravi, the Behaliya Inland Container Depot in-charge, gathered three senior officials of Nepal Customs and Security in the ICD office. They indicated the problems on the route that I intended to travel and said they could not permit that journey since even army patrols were being attacked.
Darjeeling, at an elevation of over 2,000m, was established as a colonial hill station. Jaigaon is a small town on the banks of the Torsa River, located at the main entrance to Bhutan and is the gateway to Phuntsholing, the Bhutanese border town. This makes the city a thriving trading point. Bhutan does not have roads linking all its towns; it uses Indian roads to reach its cities like Samtse, Gomtu and Samdrup Jhongkhar. Google
Maps did not even show a route through Bhutan connecting Phuntsholing and Samdrup Jhongkhar!
Jaigaon-Thimphu-Bumthang-Mongar-Samdrup Jhongkhar (4 days, 910km)
At the regional immigration office I was handed a form to fill. The counter clerk told me politely that Bhutan does not permit individuals to travel unaccompanied. As a solution she asked me to indemnify the government in the event of any mishap. She asked me to revalidate the travel permit in Thimphu to travel east of the country. After securing a local SIM and documents for the car from the Road Safety Transport Authority, I drove to Thimphu. The landscape of Thimphu looked like a large, ornate painting dotted with smiling faces all around.
The road to Bumthang was poor because the mountains had been ‘shaved’ to widen the road and the debris spread on the road. With rains, the road condition became treacherous. One side of the road was the shaved mountain and the other was deep gorges. Many locations were affected by landslides which worsened the road further. Once I almost skidded off the road. In deep slush the car turned 90 degrees and stopped at the edge of a precipice! I did not know what to do; I could not even get out as the slush was shin-deep. After evaluating options, I decided to reverse the car. When I slowly released the brake, the car moved back and turned the 90 degrees that it had taken to reach the edge of the road!
Short of Bumthang I had to source fuel from a ramshackle wooden provision store as I was running short. The young man assured that the quality was good as it was supplied by the oil company for road side sale.
As I was negotiating a sharp turn on the road to Mongar, I was frantically waved down by construction workers. As I stepped out of the car I heard a deafening roar and multiple blasts. I dived into the car and felt debris raining down. Later I was told that there had been a massive landslide ahead. At the affected site my heart sank. The landslide had completely blocked the road with tonnes of debris. There was just a JCB, its young driver and an experienced supervisor to attend to this major calamity. The supervisor calmly told me that it would take at least a day to clear up the mess!
After nearly eight hours of waiting, three vehicles were chosen to ‘try’ out the temporary detour. A government officer with his Toyota pickup, my Ford Endeavor and a Maruti Zen. The three vehicles gingerly went up the slope. Those directing traffic at the crest of the new road waved us to stop and asked the pickup to drive through first. The temporary road was made with boulders, loose earth and small trees. One particular area was narrow and had to be negotiated with great skill. The Toyota pickup got stuck at the ‘neck’ and people tried to physically lift the pickup across the obstruction. As all this was going on people started shouting and running helter skelter. I was instructed to reverse my car and go back down the slope. The Maruti car behind me reversed in double quick time. It took me a while to react and that probably saved my life. A huge boulder rolled from the mountain side and went down the gorge just a few feet from where I was.
Samdrup Jhongkhar-Itanagar-Tezu (2 days, 800km)
I was diverted by paramilitary force to route via Rangia instead of Udalguri. Further, three districts of Assam were affected by bandh. Local police accompanied traffic in a convoy to avoid miscreant activity and the route was changed via Tezpur, Gohpur and Hollangi to Itanagar. The road condition between Hollangi and Itanagar made Bhutan roads look mild in comparison.
The route via Pasighat and Roing to Tezu was closed due to flooding and I had to divert via Dhemaji, Bogibeel ghat and Dibrugarh. The Bogibeel ghat crossing took more than an hour. A massive rail-cum-road bridge was under construction over the River Brahmaputra at Bogibeel, which has since been completed.
A ferry across swollen River Brahmaputra was final hurdle to Tezu. At the ferry the person in-charge positioned the car properly for the next crossing. Soon, two army vehicles came to the jetty and wanted to jump the queue. This was stubbornly refused by the ferry in-charge and the local people who were already in the queue! The destination of the expedition was just a few minutes away. It was pure ecstasy and I could not contain my unbounded joy when the expedition ended in Tezu. I had encountered accidents, vandalism, disappointments, delays and diversions in the expedition. There were times when the thought of giving up had crossed my mind, especially after the accident in Srinagar. The solo trans-Himalayan expedition ended after 18 days and 14 hours logging over 5,850km.