A solo road trip from Chennai to Kathmandu threw up many more surprises than one expected

Written by VD Umashanker.

Are you travelling alone? DRIVING ALONE? This was the first thing most people asked me when I told them I was on a solo road trip to – actually nowhere in particular. At restaurants, tourism offices, shops, people looked at me strangely. As I was alone, I had to sit at a corner table sometimes. The icing on the cake was a call from a close friend who asked, “Hey you know I am your well-wisher. Please tell me, is everything okay?”

Is it mandatory to have a broken heart or a wrecked life to undertake a solo trip? Someone said “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

Having done many short solo trips, this time I did not decide on any specific destination or route but to just go North from Chennai, as far as I could, and return. It was not just a test of my stamina and ability to navigate but also a test of the reliability of the machine I was depending on – a Mahindra Thar. The four wheel drive has a 2.5 litre 105 BHP diesel engine in which I had made an arrangement for sleeping and also some basic cooking, in case of a dire need.

For almost 21 days in May, I was on some of the best roads (thanks to the network of NH, AH, ring roads and bypass roads) and also the worst unpaved ghat roads, stretching from Chennai to Kathmandu and back. The Kathmandu bit was to experience the mountains, the joy of driving around steep, curvy narrow roads, and also the border. The crossing at the border turned out to be surprisingly smooth — much smoother than what our trucks used to face at every State border checkpost, pre-GST. To reach the border post, I had, initially, relied too much on the GPS. The lady took me through some short cuts and straight to the real border line. After a short drive through some very beautiful country roads, I found myself halted by three soldiers who asked me what I was up to in a 4X4 at the border. After seeing my papers and personal belongings, they directed me to the proper check post. There isn’t much documentation needed to enter Nepal – no VISA, just address proof, original RC, driving licence and your date of return. You pay according to the duration of the stay in Nepal. I paid around 5,000 Nepali Rupees. And yes, you need to understand their calendar (Vikram Samvat – lunar months) because that is the date they enter and there are many youngsters around to help you out for a fee.

Though the trip started without any agenda, it soon acquired a spiritual dimension. The first few stops were Hanuman Junction, Bhubaneswar, Vizag. Heading further north, I couldn’t resist going to Bodh Gaya where a two-day stay was a must to absorb the rich and remarkable history of the place. From there to the border gate, between Raxaul on the India side and Birgunj on the Nepal side, seemed doable in one stretch. Little did I know that I would cross the birth place of George Orwell – Motihari, a village close to the border. A small white board on the side of the main road said so. Fortunately nobody had pulled it down or pasted posters on it. I was able to do this stretch before late evening in spite of the long queue of fully laden trucks waiting for customs clearance. Upon entering Nepal, I rested in a hotel in Birgunj. The drive the next day was the most difficult because of the road to Kathmandu was bad. Under construction, unpaved, full of rubble and stones and very narrow in some places, I was afraid of damage to my tyres and the suspension.

Once in Nepal, a visit to the Pashupatinath and the Swayambunath temples are mandatory. And also touristy things such as going to Thamel and the night markets.

I decided to take a different route for the return journey and when I saw Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha, on the map, I chose to take a break there. Buddhism began to draw me in. The archaeological findings there would be a feast for history students. A quaint little town, with a few resorts, it was an amazing break for a day, away from the bustle of city life, before crossing back into India. Again the crossing through Sonauli was no problem at all. I showed my permit and I was there exactly the day I said I would be, and they let me pass. This road was far better than the one I took coming into Kathmandu.

I opted to do the home stretch with as few breaks as possible because it was mostly the fabulous Asian Highway – Kanpur, Jhansi – where again I took time to delve into the history of Jhansi ki Rani. I even took time to step on Ram Janmabhumi then Nagpur, Hyderabad, Nellore and Chennai. I was quite content with the way the Thar behaved – not a whimper in spite of all the punishment. Though I lost one hub cap, because of the speed breakers that showed up without any sort of warning, on the highways in Bihar. The vehicle was not as comfortable as a car, but driving long distances was not arduous. Most places I would rest my back in the evenings by checking into a hotel located on a highway or wherever I found one. Surprisingly the State Tourism Department hotels in Bodh Gaya and Jhansi were very good value for money. They were well-maintained, had clean beds and toilets.

Driving around 5,000 km in 21 days, experiencing some wonderful and some testing road conditions, a very well behaved 4X4 and just me.

This post was published with permission from VD Umashanker.  The article was originally posted on The Hindu.

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