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The ever-smiling, and exceptionally helpful Sikkimese seem to have a strange fondness for the word.
“Can we shoot the Kanchenjunga from here?” I ask the receptionist at the State Circuit House in Gangtok where we’re staying.
“Would you like bed tea, sir?” asks the waiter after wrapping up dinner.
“Yes, of course”, says the Ed, “and at 4:30, we want to watch the sunrise at Tashi view point.”
At Tashi view point we meet Tempo, an evo India subscriber, who is going to take us to the Gangtok palace to recreate a picture from the book Hartlmaier penned after his 1935-36 DKW India Expedition.
“Impossible,” says Tempo on seeing the picture.
I’m certain when Hartlmaier puttered up the foothills of the Himalayas in his 2-stroke DKWs in 1936, he would have been greeted with plenty of “impossibles”. He had already driven from Mumbai to Delhi, across the Gangetic plain and then up to Gangtok, soaking in the spectacle of the majestic Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, on the previous leg from Darjeeling.
We’d come to Gangtok to view the Kanchenjunga but that was proving “impossible”. The bright sunshine of the past days had been replaced by dark brooding clouds and a smattering of rain. That’s why we couldn’t see the mountains from the Circuit House. And turns out, Hartlmaier wasn’t very particular about where the pictures were placed in his book – the one running alongside his recollections of Sikkim wasn’t of the Gangtok palace, but somewhere in Rajasthan! Tempo was far too polite to suggest it but we really should have done a bit of Googling before driving up.
Thank god we didn’t because Sikkim ended up being the highlight of leg 2 of the quattro Xpedition. Usha Lama, the kind lady who insisted we stay at the Circuit House signed off every call with, “have a beautiful, positive and constructive day”. Who talks like this? How wonderful if everyone did? The Governor of Sikkim turned out to be from Pune and after the Ed placed a few calls, we got a chance to watch the beating of the retreat at the Raj Bhavan that usually offers a breathtaking view of the Kanchenjunga but the entire Himalayan range was shrouded in clouds that evening. We saw a city that has narrow, steep roads and plenty of cars, manage its traffic without a single toot of the horn or a cuss word being uttered. And we didn’t see a single scrap of rubbish or person peeing by the roadside. If there ever was a model state to follow, Sikkim is it.
Our journey started far away, in the antithesis of quaint Gangtok — New Delhi. After driving from Mumbai to Delhi in the Audi Q3 for Leg 1 of the quattro Xpedition (evo India #37), for Leg 2 we were joined by the Q5, Audi’s best-selling SUV internationally. And for good reason, that it sits smack between the Q3 and Q7 offering ample space without making you feel like you are commandeering a small bus. Our SUV is particularly nice, being the 45 TDI with the sublime 3-litre V6 diesel. And sweetening the deal, Goodyear hooked us up with their Wrangler AT/SA all-terrain tyres. Some pretty bad roads were expected up ahead and we were prepared for the worst.
The Yamuna Expressway
Question. Would you like the chaos, colour and fantastic aloo paranthas on the old NH2 or to get to the Taj Mahal double quick and catch the evening light shimmering off its domes? We chose the latter; the arrow straight, 165km six-lane Yamuna Expressway. Sure it lacks character and if you give the Q5’s butter-smooth V6 diesel even half a prod of the throttle, be prepared for a thousand buck fine at the Agra end of the toll booth. But it’s so quick, convenient and stress-free that you’d be mad to drive via Mathura.
Hartlmaier, on the other hand had to contend with “high jungle grass” on the drive between the two cities 80 years ago. His book says the DKW “practically disappear from view like little toy-cars in a corn-field.” It is stuff like this that makes for stories worth telling, though our three-hour drive took Hartlmaier the best part of a week.
Both the expeditions, eighty years ago and ours today, visited Agra for the same reason — the Taj Mahal. Though not officially a wonder of the world, legend of the Mughals’ architectural prowess were enough for the Hartlmaier troupe to make the trip and throw in a double spread picture in their book. Even today it takes your breath away.
From Agra, Hartlmaier journeyed further east, along the Ganga to the holy city of Benares (Varanasi) and then in to Bengal. Here they faced a whole new set of hurdles. Take the time when they tried to cross the Ganga: “Long stretches of sand drifts in the lowlands of the river have to be crossed and greatly hinder the progress of our cars. A sandstorm prevents our first attempt at fording the river, but further on at Bhagalpoor we luckily find a ferry to take us across. Here the river is over a mile wide. Again and again we have to drive on first gear. What a terrific strain the engines have to endure to pull the cars through the burning sand.”
Eighty years on, our Audi Q3 and Q5 face no such troubles and the diesel engines are purring at 2500rpm as we make quick progress on the new East-West corridor that connects Porbandar to Silchar. We got on at Kanpur, completely avoided Varanasi, and drove across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar before veering off to Siliguri in West Bengal. What had taken Hartlmaier a month, took us all of two days.
But we’d been warned about taking this highway. As recently as 2011, the bridge over the Kosi river wasn’t complete. Picture driving over a fabulous dual carriageway for hours on end, coming to the mighty Kosi river, driving over a new bridge only to find it coming to an abrupt end midway through, with nothing but two plastic barriers and a scrawny havaldar frantically waving for you to stop before you plunge a hundred feet into the mighty river. I’m not making this up in a vain effort to seem as heroic as Hartlmaier! This happened to Aniruddha who is sharing driving duties of the Q3 with me (the Ed has appropriated the Q5) — he was advised to head back a hundred kilometres and take the road via Nepal to get to Siliguri. The fastest route was via another country! The things that happen only in India! The quicker alternative, which he shudders at the memory of, involved putting his hatchback on a rickety wooden raft with the bumpers hanging off each end and bobbing across to the other bank, muttering every known prayer. And then, like Hartlmaier, he alternatingly drove and pushed the car through loose riverbed sand for about two kilometres before finding the dual carriageway again! I can safely report that the bridge over the Kosi river doesn’t throw up any nasty surprises any more.
What we did have trouble with was the maniacal indiscipline on the highway. The highway skirts innumerable villages in UP and Bihar, and complete lawlessness prevails on the highway. It is nothing short of scary. Finding vehicles hurtling at you in the fast lane is far too common. Children play on the roadside and cyclists blindly hop over dividers, swerving dangerously on and off the roads. One needs to have their wits about them to drive in these parts.
Bihar is quite the same, though the E-W corridor bypasses most towns. And it leaves you gobsmacked, shattering every stereotype you have of the state. The highway is spectacular — flanked on both sides by lush paddy fields that stretch to the horizon, and they’ve evidently had a very good monsoon too. The scenery is unspoilt, unsullied by rabid development, and sends you back to a simpler time. It’s like the good old days when mum would pack lunch and we’d picnic under a big banyan tree, and you do have to pack something to eat as there are no decent dhabas, only rickety truck stops.
So far so good. But then at Forbesganj we turn off towards Siliguri and are introduced to the chaos of Bihar. My god, the unruliness! The goonda-gardi! The Ed nearly had to run over a bunch of hooligans demanding hafta ostensibly for Durga Puja. And the road becomes horrible. That’s where the Q5 really comes into its own, soaking in the holes and craters, putting all four wheels on the dirt to surge ahead of traffic and kicking up a big old cloud of dust in its wake. We were also thankful for the Goodyear Wrangler AT/SA tyres; in one place we descended into a field and bypassed what looked like another hafta checkpost; the Ed in no mood to be extorted.
Once out of Bihar we are in Naxalbari and, buttocks clenched, we drive as fast as we can. I’m assuming the drive would be very picturesque in the day as we’re cutting through thick forests with a defeaning cacophony of insects but in the dark, with expensive lavishly liveried SUVs… let’s say there was silence in both the SUVs for the two hours it took us to get to Bagdogra.
Hartlmaier drove through what he called the “gloomy, fever-infested forests” of Siliguri before finally laying eyes on the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. Eight decades on, the gloomy forests have been replaced by acres and acres of gorgeous-looking tea plantations, but the majesty of the mountains hasn’t diminished one bit. They tower over you, their peaks obscured by the wispy clouds shimmying around them. We drove at them head on and couldn’t help but wonder what Hartlmaier must have felt as his cars went around the first bend and started the long arduous 6,000ft climb to Darjeeling. I’m not sure if the Himalayan railway existed back then, but now, the narrow gauge track runs along the road, so close you can touch the ‘toy train’ from your car window when it chugs past. It’s a beautiful and quaint remnant of the Raj, and still the lifeline in these parts where the roads are so narrow at places two cars cannot even cross side-by-side.
At Gangtok, Hartlmaier met with German and English mountaineering expeditions to the Everest (the ones he met weren’t successful), lunched with the king (who was voted out of power when the people of Sikkim requested Nehru to include the state in the Union of India in 1975) and gazed at the spectacular Kanchenjunga. We got a glimpse of the peak for barely two minutes when the clouds broke, and then it went back into hiding. The mountains have an aura of serenity about them, once you’re up there you seem to forget the chaos of the world below. Hartlamier described the people of Sikkim as “sturdy, frank and cheerful”, and none of that has changed. Tempo, Usha ma’am, everyone we met went out of their way to see that we were well taken care of. We were privileged to be escorted around the Tsuklakhang monastery in the palace grounds, one of the oldest and most important in Sikkim. All the religious rituals and pujas held in this monastery were presided over by the ruling king and queen. Usha ma’am reminisces about the grandeur and pomp of the royal processions held there when she was a child. She says the first half of her life she was Sikkimese and now she is Indian! Unfortuantely, we couldn’t visit the palace as it was under renovation. But later in the evening, we did see the beating of the retreat at the Raj Bhavan and even got an audience with Shriniwas Patil, the governor of Sikkim, who was quite taken in by the first part of the quattro Xpedition story in our anniversary issue last month.
Kolkata is 560km from Siliguri. Google Maps says it will take approximately 12 hours to cover. And more often than not, Google Maps is accurate with its predicted ETAs. We had a flight to catch at 11pm from Kolkata and missing it would have set the Ed off on a tirade no one wanted to be around to witness. We set off from Siliguri, making good progress until Google Maps asks us to turn off the wide, empty dual-carriage highway we were on. It seems fishy. We were leaving a fabulous road (that headed to Kolkata anyway) for a suspiciously narrow road through the Bengali countryside. A bit of pondering drew us to the conclusion that Google knows what’s up and we should trust it. That is where things began to go downhill.
Those techies in California haven’t programmed festivals in to Google’s algorithms, and certainly haven’t programmed Bengali arbitrariness into them. It happened to be the first day of the Durga Puja, something we should have considered before turning off the highway. The road Google took us down was a State highway that wasn’t in the best condition and progress slowed down a fair bit. The highway passed through plenty of towns and villages where loud music, blinding lights, massive pandals and an ocean of revellers had taken to the streets. And once we reached Burdwan, some 100km from Kolkata airport, the cops had shut the only road that leads to the highway. The locals had taken to the streets, traffic had piled up, there was no way through and the clock was ticking. A helpful truckie pointed us down a narrow road that would make Audi’s Q Drive courses seem tame. We tried out the axle articulation of both SUVs, put the Goodyears to test and came to some more villagers blocking the road. These guys weren’t celebrating. They were pissed off that no one was doing anything about the Q Drive course leading to their village and had decided to eff things up for everybody.
Much flashing of press cards, grovelling and puppy dog faces later, the grumpy villagers moved three rocks and let us through, only for us to find a log placed across the road just before a railway crossing which the Q5 only crossed after scraping the Goodyears on both sides (sidewalls have excellent puncture resistance I have to say). Finally, after plenty of nerve-wracking moments, we hit the highway we’d last seen eight hours ago. With a collective sigh of relief and Audi’s fantastic lights piercing the darkness, it was pedal to metal all the way to the airport. Well, we had set out in search of adventure and couldn’t complain!
Hartlmaier also faced many hurdles on his way to the port in Kolkata; in his case the sea port to ship his DKWs to Madras. “Privations and hardships have been part of our daily routine.” Where we faced a time crunch, he faced unknown terrain, language barriers, disease, wild animals, lack of clean drinking water and whatever else a far-away tropical country could throw at a European. The task was literally impossible. And the next leg would be the most gruelling, through South India in the peak of the Indian summer.