Thursday, November 5, 2009

Driving to the roof top... of the world!

It all began at the coffee table when Charu asked me if I drive. I said yes with an expression of obviousness although I had never driven by myself from one district to the other. Charu asked if I needed a vehicle for my next project in Himachal. Obviously the answer to a question like that can never be a 'No'. But the best part was that the vehicle was in Guwahati, Assam and my project in Spiti, Himachal. That meant I get to drive the vehicle (a white Maruti Gypsy) form Assam to Himachal and there onwards to Leh.

Dharma in the Vehicle at the start of the drive in Assam

Driving over 3000 km all by myself was a little risky, especially with my limited understanding of engines. The only thing that I could repair by myself was a tire puncture so the task now was to find a partner who could drive and knew more about Maruti vehicles than me. My problem was solved by Dharma. Dharma is my M.Sc. class mate, he has been diving a Maruti Esteem for ages, he drove much better than me and we were good friends. I could pay for his travel from Bangalore to Guwahati and back from Spiti to Bangalore through the money I had at my disposal to pay a driver for the same task.

As we started from Guwahati our first stop was just within 20 km of the town; the Pigmy Hog Centre. Pygmy hog (Porcula salvania) is a critically endangered suid survived by less than 150 individuals in the wild. They were declared extinct some time ago but then one last population was rediscovered in Manas National Park, Assam. At this centre they are being breed in captivity and released in the wild to increase the population in the wild.

The worlds smallest and most endangered pig

By the time we left the Pygmy hog centre it was already late. We knew we will have to drive into the night. By night it started pouring. The rain was so hard that I could see only the wind screen. We crossed the border into West Bengal at midnight. Next morning we hit the road before sunrise. Around ten we heard that the Highway we crossed last night has been washed away. Hush.. we got out in time.

Crossing the Brahmaputra

West Bengal was fun. The roads were good. Punjabi truckers were happy to see some Hindi speakers.

Flooding Teesta

I had been warned about Bihar. Beware the Ganges is flooding. Beware of dacoits. Beware of bad roads, Beware of people and many more bewares... We were cautious and may be thats the reason why we didn't have any incident. We did try to look for Gangetic river Dolphins in the Ganges at Bhagalpur but no luck. Actually we were unsure which way to look because the flooding ganges had broken its banks and the whole of Bihar (or so it seemed) was under water. People were literally living on the Highway which is just a few meters higher than the surrounding fields.

Dharma looking for River Dolphins

The Flooding Ganges

The Flooding Ganges

Post Bihar the drive was more mechanistic. It was all about changing gears and watching out for the next truck. Although I developed a lot of respect for truckers as I realised that they are the ones who follow all the rules religiously and it was we, city drivers, who try to squeeze our little cars wherever there is even an inch of ground available. Somewhere around Allahabad I had some problem with the wiring of the horn and so I had to pull aside to try and fix it. I got off and suddenly realised that there were two magnificent Sarus cranes in the field right next to the road.

Sarus cranes

We then stayed at Delhi for a day and pushed of to Manali the next. The drive from Delhi to Manali was all about great roads (clocking 90 km/hr) and welcoming mountains. Unfortunately Dharma had to turn back from Manali. The toughest leg of the drive and I was alone. But even this leg was to be nothing compared to what I would go though ever day when I start using this Gypsy for my field work in Spiti. Everydays drive in Spiti is going to be much more difficult.

Getting into Spti

I started from Manali at first light and didn't stop until Batal; that's about 130 km and at halfway. Had a great lunch there and got ready for the steep climb to Kunzum pass standing at 4550m. Only a km into the second leg of the drive and I had my first flat tire since Assam, Welcome to Spiti. It didn't take too long for me to fix it but I was angry at the french tourists who passed by in a taxi laughing at me. I had to catch them and show them that I wasn't a tourist like them but a regular guy here. So I drove the ride of my life and made it to the top of Kunzum before the bloody French. I felt as if I had just beaten Alain Prost.

I pulled into Kibber (4200m) by 5 o clock in the evening, a surprise to a lot of Spitians. The poor old kullusingh has a car now. Well they don't recognise project car from personal car. Anyways I was there at the roof of the world and it snowed the next day... Over two feet. two days later when I tried to start the car, the cooling fan shattered to pieces, while shattering it punctured the radiator so all the cool-lent drained out, the timing belt went flying off, the axle of the timing wheel broke and the car was almost dead. Watching this some local guy said "High altitude sickness". But I was in Spiti and nothing could go wrong now. I partied hard until the vehicle got fixed and then drove it for 7000 km during my research project. Spitians call that car 'Dadima' but its still in a great condition and I hope to do my PhD 'in' it.

Dadima under heap of snow

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