Monday, July 3, 2017

Day 17 - Bangalore to Kanyakumari to Chennai - 12 June 2017

When I started from Keys Hotel, Bangalore at 4 am the destination I had in mind for the day was the fourth corner, Kanyakumari. ORH had been booked in Kanyakumari for the next day and I had to get that advanced by a day. Ashok Kumar, Sr. Divisional Operations Manager of Trivandrum Division came to my rescue. He also arranged for the Station Manager of Kanyakumari railway station to be on standby to attest the log sheet. It was exactly 650 km from the hotel in Bangalore to the railway station in Kanyakumari. Much beyond expectations was covering this part of the journey in 7 hours. When I reached the railway station and got the log sheet attested by the Station Manager just after 11 am, technically all four corners had been covered. But, the Record Drive will be complete only upon reaching Chennai, as the expedition started from there.

If I were to halt in Kanyakumari I had a lot of time to kill in the day. after occupying the ORH I went for a drive to the Gandhi Mandapam at the land’s end to enjoy the beach and the lovely views across the sea. The Vivekananda Rock looked majestic and tourists seemed to have swarmed her despite the not so calm sea. When I visited Kanyakumari on excursion from school I remember having marveled at the three colors of sand one could gather from the beach. All that is past and kids today can’t do that today; the beach itself is an apology.

On the way back to the ORH I had a masala dosa for lunch. Before dozing off to sleep in the ORH I decided to drive to Chennai and complete the expedition this day itself instead of ‘wasting time’ in Kanyakumari. The two hour rest gave me the appropriate fuel to make a dash for the finishing point. At 2.45 pm I signed out of the ORH and left for Chennai – the final part of the FCoI.

I lived a dream during the day with the Champion. She felt so light behind the wheel that it seemed to me that she was raring to be back home. There were many moments of anxiety during the day but, together, we braved them and got to Chennai to complete the tough expedition. It was her show. The second leg of the day from Kanyakumari to Chennai was 685 km in 8 hours and 45 minutes. Reached the end of the expedition at the House of Hiranandani, Chennai at 2330 hours. It was 1334 km in 15 hours and 45 minutes today.

The previous record for solo FCoI of 26 days, 22 hours and 15 minutes (647 hours and 15 minutes) was bettered quite handsomely. 13214 km was done in 16 days and 19 hours (403 hours) to complete the FCoI expedition, thereby shaving almost 40 percent off the existing record. Most definitely, the documents have to be verified and the record certified by Limca Book of Records. When I got back to my apartment, despite the late hour I decided to make up for the nearly three weeks of 'parched' existence with a double shot of Beluga vodka!
FCoI in summary: 13214 kms in 403 hours at 777 kms per day and overall average speed of 57.5 kmph. Total driving hours 299 hours and 15 minutes, which was 57 percent of the start to finish time. Consumed 1000 ltrs of diesel at an average cost of Rs. 59.4 per litre, fuel efficiency per litre was 13.5 km. Travelled through 17 states in 17 days to break the existing record of 647 hours and 15 minutes.

Distance, time taken and average speed for the four corners were as below:
Kanyakumari to Tezu (first corner) – 4108 km, 66 hr 10 mt, 62 kmph
Tezu to Leh (second corner) – 3796 km, 73 hr 20 mt, 52 kmph
Leh to Koteshwar (third corner) – 2624 km, 50 hr 20 mt, 52 kmph
Koteshwar to Kanyakumari (fourth corner) – 2686 km, 39 hr 50 mt, 67 kmph

My heartfelt thanks go out to each one of you who supported, encouraged and egged me on during this tough expedition; it would be unfair to take names because I am certain to leave out many, for that was the kind of all-round assistance, prayers and motivation I received. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Day 16 - Pune to Bangalore - 11 June 2017

I anticipated the day’s drive to be stress free and smooth, as I had done this stretch quite a few times in the past. I also decided to leave later than is usual, at 5 am. Access to the highway NH48 was neither far nor difficult. Normally it is a nightmare to leave a city because of poor sign posting. However, nowadays with the assistance of navigation systems, that problem has been more or less eliminated. I have seen terrible traffic snarls near the Khambatki ghat, a mountain pass through the Sahyadri range on the NH4. Early in the morning the pass is generally free.

The sight of the Suvarna Vidhan Soudha just off the highway near Belgaum made me get out of the car to take in. Apparently the Vidhan Soudha was built at a cost of nearly Rs. 500 crores to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Karnataka formation day. Belgaum district has been in the centre of a border dispute between the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka since long. In order to spike any further dispute the Karnataka Government undertook this extravaganza by acquiring 127 acres of land from farmers. The question uppermost on most minds is: Was it required to bleed the exchequer for one sitting of the Assembly here every year? Is our democracy so devoid of accountability?

I was famished by the time I reached the Kamat Upachar outlet beyond Sira at 3 pm. After fueling at the outlet beside the Upachar I had a leisurely snack of dosa and coffee. It was just another 150 km to the Keys Hotel on the Hosur Road. The transit from NH48 to NH44 via the NICE road was a beauty. The bypass has considerably speeded up the movement from one link to the other. Finally, just before 6 pm I reached the Keys Hotel and was lodged in a comfortable room. The day spanned 882 km in under 12 hours of driving. Rains, sometimes quite heavy, had slowed progress before noon. But the most irritating factor was the 17 toll plazas I had to navigate by shelling out Rs. 1,111 as toll fee. It is not the fee per se that is the irritant; it is suffering serpentine queues and quite often some boorish car owners try to impress the toll clerk with their ID to seek exemption from payment of toll fee. Why anyone should be exempted from payment is beyond comprehension when all those who are exempted, as per the list displayed at toll plazas, are those who are eligible for reimbursement of expenses while on duty. If they are not on duty they must pay. Anyway, the toll plazas must go, in the interest of saving fuel, time and management cost.

However, the more important thing that occupied my mind was that the fourth corner will come up tomorrow when I reach Kanyakumari.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Day 15 - Bhuj to Pune - 10 June 2017

The original plan for the day was to go to Koteshwar and return via Bhuj to halt at Ahmedabad. Since Koteshwar had been done the previous day I thought of extending the drive to Thane, where my cousin lived. Before that, however, I was appointed to meet with Hetal and Rajiv Shah and some of his friends in Surat. The time for the meeting would depend on the progress I made in the morning. Despite the uncertainty I ‘ordered’ Hetal to get me fafda and khaman for a ‘brunch-lunch’.
When I was near the Ahmedabad-Vadodara Expressway I realized that two very good friends and erstwhile railway colleagues lived in Vadodara. RK Tandon is a batch mate. He works in Vadodara post his retirement. Sadly he was out of town, engaged with his grandchildren in Mumbai. JD Goswami, as is his wont, gave me elaborate instructions about where we could meet, while ensuring that I do not waste any time in detours and leaving the highway.  The meeting point was fixed just ahead of Hotel Legend on NH48. The break after almost 6 hours of continuous drive at a half past 10 was most welcome. After exchanging notes about the family and promising to meet in Jorhat for his daughter’s wedding we parted. We also struck a deal to drive together from Vadodara to Hyderabad some time in December.

The next break was in Surat. I reached King’s Corner restaurant just after 12.30 pm. The get together organized by Rajiv Shah was an unusually longish one; the intended half hour stretched to over an hour. Fafda, kaman, jalebis and delicious kesar mangoes adorned the restaurant table. The restaurant opens late evening, but Rajiv took special permission from the owner, who also joined the get together, to bring outside food and have a small meeting there. The highlight of the ‘brunch-lunch’ was an excellent chocolate cake baked by Hetal Shah. I am so grateful to Rajubhai and other friends who joined in.

When I left Surat after 1.45 pm I evaluated the option of driving past Thane to Pune. It was certainly on the cards and I informed my cousin about the change of plans. The crossover from the Western Expressway to Thane via the Fountain Junction cost me over 90 minutes, a distance of about 5 km! The traffic snarl was unbelievable. I am told that it has been so for more than a year now. Moving inch by inch I finally got free at the Fountain junction. Further frustrations awaited me on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.  Poor lane discipline is a ‘virtual’ killer. Dangerous weaving in and out of small openings offered between trucks is an awful way to drive anywhere. The Lonavala ghats was negotiated at 10 kmph, thanks to overloaded, poorly maintained and aged trucks either breaking down or unable to haul, but occupying all three lanes in tandem. It was shameful use of excellent infrastructure.

The day finally ended in the Lemon Tree hotel in Pune, which was frightfully busy due to birthday and reception parties. The receptionist gave me a quiet room, which suited the 17 hour day I had experienced thus far and a drive of 987 km. The roads had been exceptionally good all through with three expressways along the route. The problem was the manner in which the infrastructure was used. However, the gain was that I was a full day ahead of schedule.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Day 14 - Abu Road to Koteshwar to Bhuj - 9 June 2017

‘Goodwill Knows No Boundaries’ is a tag line of Record Drive. I have had this since 2014, when I drove to London. I have experienced numerous instances of the tag line in my life, particularly on my travels. This morning it was no different. When the hotel vouchers were being prepared I went to the car park to put my luggage and make the preliminary checks before starting the day’s drive. The sight that greeted me there was of the security guard of the hotel cleaning my car. I had not asked for it to be cleaned; the guard said that he decided to clean it as the car had done a long journey! What can you say of such an experience? Interactions such as these make a journey worth its while and prove that, truly, goodwill knows no boundaries.

The road from Udhampur had been good, all the way upto Abu Road. A lot is said about the excellent condition of the roads in Gujarat. The border was just 10 km from the hotel. The border between Rajasthan and Gujarat was virtually seamless, in that there was no hold up there at all, unlike most others I had experienced on the way. The road condition did not disappoint and it was top class till Bachau, after which it was quite ordinary till Koteshwar.

A creeping worry as I was motoring towards Koteshwar was the attestation of the log sheet there. I knew that the place had no hotels and that the only recourse would be the police station. I connected with an old friend who is presently the Commissioner of Police, Vadodara, Manoj Sasidharan IPS. He was all grace and promised that the needful would be done, which was in a few minutes. I had the number of the SHO and was told that he would await my call. As I was near the Narayan Sarovar, which is one of the five holy lakes according to Hindu theology, I called up the SHO and told him that I would meet him in the station. I knew the location of the police station from my earlier visits to Koteshwar on the Coast to Coast and East West expeditions in Jan/Feb 2013.

The SHO wanted me to have snacks, lunch, tea, etc. I politely turned down the hospitality and got to the business end of the visit. The log sheet was attested. I had completed the third corner a day in advance of the schedule. After the formalities were completed the SHO piloted me to the land’s end in Koteshwar. Even though I had been there by foot in the earlier visits, this was the first time I was there with the car. It was an awesome experience. The Koteshwar Mahadev Shiva temple overlooks the Kori creek and its earliest mention is reportedly in the writings of the ancient Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsiang.  Well beyond is the Sir Creek which is the boundary with Pakistan.

Three corners done, one more to go. I was over the moon; the third was done within 96 hours of the second. I even mulled the prospect of extending the day’s run to Ahmedabad; felt I could do it, but decided against it in the interest of some extra rest. I had a reservation in Click Hotels, just beside the Bhuj railway station. I reached there without much ado after 725 kms in 11 hours; only another 3000 plus kms to go to complete the expedition. The hotel was quite comfortable and was adequate to recharge the body batteries before getting on the road for the final corner. It was incredibly hot and windy in Bhuj. I had to do a lot of repacking for the final days of the expedition. It was quite a task doing that in that windy condition, but I managed. The restaurant gave me excellent veg pakoras and tea. After completing the documentation and before turning in for the night I had a bowl of sweet corn soup.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Day 13 - Jalandhar to Abu Road - 8 June 2017

Last evening I had asked a hotel valet to get the car washed using hotel resources. For Rs. 300 the Champion received a well-deserved cleaning. I made haste after the checkout formalities were completed. I hoped that I would be compensated for the frustrations of the previous day. I had made arrangements for stay in Ajmer in the ORH. From Jalandhar it was 780 km to Ajmer. If all went well I would be able to extend the drive, I thought. I was right. By 1 pm, after 8 hours of steady drive I was near Jaipur after having done 640 km. The Delhi bypass via Rewari also went off smoothly.

Short of Jaipur I stopped for a power nap. Whenever I feel overpowered by sleep I pull over for a 15-20 minute nap. The sleep is normally so deep that I invariably wake up to the sound of my own loud snore! It is strange what a 20 minute nap can do to re-energize you. I sped on to Ajmer and decided to go even further. I needed assistance from Rajiv Shah to decide where to halt based on availability of decent accommodation. Based on his inputs I focused on getting to Abu Road, about 350 km from Ajmer. I had no worry about the distance because the roads were exceptionally good. When the drive ended in the Chandrawati Palace Hotel in Abu Road at about 8 pm I had done 1134 kms in about 15hours. It had been contrasting drives on two days from the Himalayas to the Aravallis. The drive from Jalandhar to Abu Road cost me Rs. 1398 in toll fee, which was worth every rupee because of the good roads. However, toll plazas must be eliminated either through compulsory TAG and online toll booking to get rid of huge waste of fuel and time. Hopefully check posts will go with the introduction of GST. Together, these two irritants cause enormous wastes.

A new experience awaited me in Rajasthan. I was stopped at two locations for going over the speed limit. At the first I pleaded with the young constable that I was on a ‘mission’ and that I was driving safely, even though marginally over the speed limit. He acquiesced and I drove on. I was not so lucky at the second place. I had to pay a fine of Rs. 400 and wait for some time to complete the documentation. There are no indications of the permitted speed – when I told this to the constable he told me, Idhar, udhar rakha hai, meaning it’s kept here and there!

The Chandrawati Palace Hotel is a basic, no frills accommodation. The neat, large room and friendly staff was more than what I could expect to get for Rs. 1308! The location of the hotel was the greatest plus point. It was on the highway, without any detour and just 10 km short of the Gujarat border. The hotel, apparently, was full and the manager told me that business is good. Being so strategically located close to Gujarat border must evidently be good for business.

At the end of the day, being over 350 km ahead of the original schedule many plans started germinating in the mind. The immediate plan was to travel to the third corner in Koteshwar, Gujarat tomorrow, instead of the day after. That would help me to reschedule the left over program quite significantly. However, with every day bringing its own unique experiences, each day had to be taken on its merits. In the meanwhile, MapMyIndia has been doing a very competent job tracking and recording the expedition.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Day 12 - Srinagar to Jalandhar - 7 June 2017

Anyone and everyone who had heard the exploit of yesterday marveled at the ‘heart’ to even attempt, much less succeed, in what is arguably not a normal option in a day’s drive. I was looking forward to the drive today that would take me to ‘safer’ zones. Before that happened, however, I had to face such frustrating situations that, at times, I almost broke down and wept in the car. Let me narrate the events of the day, for you to get a hang of what actually took place through the day.
I had settled the guest house charges and arranged luggage the previous night so that I could get away without any further preliminaries. When I left the guest house the reception was not manned and I thanked my lucky stars that all was done the previous night. Very soon after I had left the guest house I had to detour in a couple of places due to road repair and a truck breakdown. I wondered then if the obstructions were part of a larger plot for the day! I could not have been more on target. I had left the city of Srinagar and soon passed a few traffic posts where freight trucks and cars were regulated after Anantnag. I moved on regardless as I was not stopped. The Lower Munda toll post is about 80 km from Srinagar and as I was nearing it I found a large number of passenger vehicles regulated. I asked a couple of them why they were waiting. I was alarmed when told that many of them had been waiting since the previous night. A posse of the District Traffic Police was seen removing vehicles forcefully to make way for vehicles from the opposite direction. Fortunately, met the District Traffic Inspector (DTI) and explained the purpose of my journey. He told me that there had been a major landslide at Ramban, where a contractor working to four-lane the road had nearly brought down half a rocky hill, disrupting traffic in both directions! He said that restoration is in progress and traffic would be permitted to move by 8 am. I used the time to explain my expeditions to a few who had gathered near the officer, seeking his indulgence. I could understand the sentiments of the people who were regulated; some even had trains and planes to catch. The job of the policemen were unenviable, though. They were seen to be arbitrarily detaining tourists; I explained to some of them that a convoy of CRPF trucks were on the way as part of road opening. The DTI also informed us that an alternate day convoy system has been in force since the past two years. This meant that, on this day, passenger vehicles would be permitted only between 11am and 3 pm from Lower Mundah to Ramban. However, since traffic had been stuck for so long, in the interests of tourism, he would made an exception. While all this was going on I was ‘waylaid’ by a few vendors from who I bought a cricket bat for Rs. 500, cherries and strawberries for a few hundred.
As promised by the District Traffic Inspector the traffic was opened up; the mad rush saw further hold up. Fortunately, I ‘broke loose’ and headed a pack. However, right up to the landslide point in Ramban traffic moved slowly. The ‘devastation’ at the landslide point explained why the traffic had been regulated. Ramban is virtually on the lap of the Pir Panjal range and the rocks that had slid down were massive. The ‘crawl’ continued all the way up to the Manser bypass, where it became almost impossible to move. Immediately as I turned on to the bypass road I knew for certain that I had made the wrong call. The entire population of trucks and cars seemed headed to Pathankot via the bypass. After frustratingly waiting in the interminably long queue I saw a slight opportunity to take a U-turn and head back to take the Udhampur-Jammu road. That saved the rest of the day for me.

The long wait in queues on the way to Ramban had made me ravenously hungry. I could devour, and not just eat, anything that would be placed before me. I was in that state. The rajma-chawal of the Khajuria Vaishno Dhaba I had tasted in Peerah way back in 2010 kept me constantly salivating as I approached the way side dhabas. As was to be expected, the dhabas in Peerah were busy. However, the service was quick and people ate and vacated their places quickly. I ordered the quintessential rajma-chawal and desi ghee served with pomegranate chutney. The delicious fare for Rs. 90 was every bit as delicious as I remembered it to be. I mentioned that to the owner of the dhaba and he was mighty pleased. The food soon digested in the shakes and bumps on the road to the Manser bypass.
The longer route via Udhampur and Jammu by the NH44 was smooth and fast. This helped to recoup some lost time, but not enough to extend the day’s drive, though. I had to end the day at Jalandhar by a quarter to 7 pm. I was lodged comfortably in the Sarovar Portico hotel, thanks to Rajiv Shah once again. Under 500 km in the day in more than 14 hours behind the wheel was tough. The comfortable hotel helped to get over the frustrations of the day. A light snack washed down by cold coffee with ice cream was all I had for dinner; resisted the temptation of the themed Punjabi Dhaba festival at the hotel restaurant.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Day 11 - Kargil to Leh to Srinagar - 6 June 2017

It was just a few minutes after 2 am that I was shaken out of my deep sleep by prayers in a nearby mosque. The loudspeakers sounded as if there were focused into my room. Any further sleep was out of the question. Before going to sleep last night I had kept the alarm for 3.30 am, but this sounded like one from the One above. I decided to get ready and leave for Leh.  When I came down to the reception just after 2.30 am the receptionist could not believe his eyes. And I could not too, as a car was parked just behind mine in the hotel portico. That had to be removed if I had to leave. Fortunately, by the time I settled the bills the security guard returned with the owner of the car. I apologized to him for waking him up at that hour. Before leaving the hotel I told the receptionist that I would be back for some more rest from Leh later in the day and that he should retain D-3 for me. He agreed, as had the young man who had allotted the room to me the previous night.
By 2.45 am I was on the road to Leh. I had only the lights of the car to guide me and it was pitch dark. Moreover, the road for 30 odd km till Mulbekh was quite bad and I had to be extremely cautious. Thereafter, it was very good till Leh. The second corner was ‘captured’ by 7.30 am; 220 km took me nearly five hours, but that is to be expected in the hills. The toughest of the four corners was thus over. 
Yesterday, on the way from Srinagar, which is at 5200 ft, I had passed Zoji La at 11865 ft and stayed in Kargil which was at 8800 ft. On the way to Leh this morning I passed the Fotu La top at 13479 ft, which is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road; Leh is itself at 11500 ft. Since the drive to Zoji La had been slow, though excruciatingly so at times, it helped my body to gradually acclimatize to the altitude. But this morning the ‘climb’ from 8800 ft to 13000 plus was faster and I suspected that I was a bit affected. I shrugged it off as a ‘psychological illusion’ and continued onwards to Leh. The descent of about 2000 ft from Fotu La to Leh in quick time certainly calmed the ‘tremors’.
Instead of going to the local police station for log sheet attestation I went to the premier hotel in Leh, Golden Dragon. I had stayed at this hotel in 2012, thanks to my late friend, George. I had been ceremonially flagged off from there on 11 June 2012 by the hotel’s owner, Mustafa, my friends George and Tashi, Avinav of Muthoot Finance and Mishra and his CRPF constables to start my North-South solo drive from Leh to Kanyakumari. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to drop in and renew an old friendship with Mustafa. Unfortunately, I was told that he was away in Delhi on a business trip. I dropped a couple of books at the reception for him and got the log sheets attested. Thereafter, I proceeded to the restaurant of the hotel for a hot breakfast. Mustafa is an exceptionally gifted painter. He neither sells them nor does he gift them. Many of his paintings adorn the lovely hotel reception and rooms. The subject is mostly local landscape and life. 
I was off in an hour from Leh after a few photographs at the ‘foot’ of the Leh Palace from the erstwhile Polo Ground, which had been converted into a massive parking facility. The dust and grime in Leh was certainly a turn-off; the result of some haphazard town planning works like drainage and road widening. After topping up fuel in one of the fuel stations in Leh I made haste to Kargil. I afforded myself the luxury of brief halts to admire the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers, the Fotu La top, Lamayaru monastery and the Magnetic Hill. Later, closer to Kargil, I met Nazeer and Rinshad. They had planned to leave at 6 am for Leh, but that had stretched to after 9! The winding roads added to the lack of sleep; the sleep forgone, in the excitement of getting to the second corner, was catching up and by the time I reached PC Palace at 1.15 pm I was extremely sleepy. The receptionist handed over the key to the room without a demur, even though the official check out time was well past over. I took a nap in the comfortable room for an hour and before 3 pm I readied for the ambitious drive to Srinagar.
The SIMs had been non-functional since Sonamarg yesterday. I had to ask the DIG if he would be able to accommodate me in case I drove through to Srinagar this day. Alternative plans had to be discussed with Rajiv Shah too. Therefore, from the hotel reception in Leh I got through to both of them. The DIG told me that VIPs are due to visit the camp this day and that accommodation would be scarce. However, he told me to check with him after I got to Sonamarg.

In an hour from leaving the hotel in Kargil I passed Dras; temperatures in winter drop to minus 45C here. And then the ordeal began. Humongous hold ups took place in the narrow reaches between Dras and Baltal, which included the Zoji La. The drive to Sonamarg was causing concern; I had to pass the checkpoint before 5pm. Sometimes traffic hardly moved. Good Samaritans and sensible drivers saved added blushes. Poor maintenance of such strategic road linkages is a matter of concern. And it also began to rain. Fortunately, MapMyIndia guided me without any glitch from Sonamarg, even though the lonely ride in some places was spooky. In the meanwhile, the SIMs kicked to life and I had news from the DIG that he would be able to accommodate me overnight in the guest house, where I reached well past 9 pm. Over 650 km of one of the most challenging roads in India had been done in the day and was deeply satisfying. More satisfying was the fact that the schedule was back on track. No loss, No gain! And, there was just one more day of anxiety to go in J&K – the balance two corners could be done under far less stressful conditions, I knew.