Route Survey Update – 2 September 2013

As fate would have it, we met Hormazd when leaving the offices of a shipping agent in the cut and thrust of Mumbai downtown; I spotted the rather nice pre-war Dodge sedan nosing out from a tiny alley into the hurly-burly. Offering my life to the Gods’, I strode into the melee of cars and people to make an introduction. We were immediately ushered into the dark confines of his collection and treated like old friends. Hormazd has more than twenty vintage and post-vintage cars some of which are truly exotic including a Rolls twenty and a gorgeous 25/30. He invited us to contact numerous friends who may be able to help with logistics and officialdom; we also hope they may join us for one section of the event through Jammu & Kashmir.

Our first day on the road heading north out of Mumbai was productive although frustrating; cars, carts, carriages, and cattle all meandering to and fro across a six lane expressway with their own set of ‘rules’ certainly concentrates the mind and enriches the driving experience. As the monsoon ebbs the rice paddies and the countryside show an emerald green lushness which come straight from a Peter Jackson film set. Further north we checked alternative routes and came out with very little to show for hours of bone-shaking secondary roads although one shortcut proved worthwhile. It is certainly extraordinary how much value the average Indian can get from his litre of petrol! The current record number of persons transported on one motorbike that we have observed is 6 but that only appears to be possible if at least two or three of those people are babies; whereas the Tuk-Tuk record currently stands at 17. However, if you have a ‘gas guzzling’ Mahindra you are expected to cope with a good deal more than twenty passengers!

We watched bullock carts loaded with sugarcane meandering down the fast lane of the wrong carriageway (ie oncoming) with children younger than ten years of age sprawled on top of the load controlling the unresponsive beast as mighty Tatas’ raised a cacophony from one of India’s best siren orchestras. The people of this country unquestionably mean to use their time and resources carefully and on occasion combine it with a sense of humour; one bumper sticker on a vastly over laden truck (with canvas showing through his tyres) reading, “Safety isn’t expensive, it’s Priceless.” Another common but juxtaposing site is that of an individual walking bare-foot, dressed in rags, but animated in deep conversation on a Smartphone! After noticing some rather ‘quaint’ hotel names we began to take more interest and have so far spotted ‘Hotel Panik’, ‘Hotel Comfort’, ‘Hotel Delight’, with others using such temptation as Honest, Relish, Lucky, and Good Choice but my favourite has to be the ‘Hotel Goodluck’ and from the outside I’d say you’ll need it!

In the trophy room at one of the palaces we inspected I counted 9 tigers amongst several hundred creatures adorning the walls. We were told the Maharaja moved his hunting grounds to Africa after it became ‘frowned upon’ in India in the late 1950s’ but stopped hunting altogether in 1978. Gujarat is renowned for its work ethic, is prosperous and businesslike, indeed many of India’s successful individuals are Gujarati including Ratan Tata of the truck manufacturing empire, also Mahatma Gandhi who lead the country for a number of years and who spoke against partition during independence. Gujarat is a ‘dry’ state, in other words prohibition; except foreign tourists can apply for an alcohol exemption. We thought we had better check exactly what this meant and how a permit might be obtained (our duty, you understand). I have to report a farcical scenario ensued involving eight signatures and a copy of your passport, all overseen by a most fearsome matriarch the like of which I haven’t seen since I wore short-trousers in the fourth form!

We saw beautiful oxen in harness drawing a plough in lush green surroundings, the monsoons combination of heat and moisture certainly makes everything grow. From casual observance, the men appear to ride around on 100cc Indian built Honda motorcycles while the women work like hell in the fields and can be seen walking down the roadside carrying huge loads upon their heads. Visiting one village we found the girls milk the cow, churn the butter, make the cheese, grind the corn, and make the bread while the more senior Men sit cross-legged in conversation drinking an Opium concoction!

Rajasthan is the ‘Land of Kings’ with more palaces than any other province, it was wonderful to arrive at The Lake Palace in Udaipur after a long drive with difficult conditions as night fell. The greeting is soothing as you clamber abroad a small craft which guides you to the exquisite hotel in the centre of Lake Pichola; just a single night in this salubrious palace surrounded by glass smooth water seems a waste when coffered with such unsurpassed service and attention. However, Jodhpur our next destination, also has unparalleled luxurious accommodation at Umaid Bhawan Palace; one of the world’s largest private residences and fortuitously part of the palace is managed as a hotel. Named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present owners of the palace, this colossal establishment has 347 rooms and serves as the principal residence of the Jodhpur royal family. We could not help but be impressed with the service and style of the place and are happy to include it in our itinerary.

We passed Bishnois communities who believe all life, however inconsequential, is sacred and have practiced bio-diversity for more than 500 years. Their Guru gave the message to protect trees and wildlife when nobody could predict that harming the environment means harming yourself. We were given the opportunity to visit a tiny village, meet the elders and to see how beautiful yet simple life can be.

Turning west the landscapes become drier and more hardy with desert plants beginning to appear; a tiny, delicate yellow flower in particular seems to thrive with little moisture. I have not travelled into the western deserts of India before; you will enjoy the open spaces, the lack of people, the clear roads, and the harsh climate. The lack of traffic and good roads is undoubtedly a welcome change allowing you to relax and immerse yourself into the culture and at this time of year the temperatures are considered comfortable in the mid-forties Centigrade. Arriving in Jaisalmer we needed to inspect hotels and excursions for a planned rest day on the event; the camel safari we both took, while interesting, left us moving with a more delicate gait after four hours strapped to the back of the loping beast and can only be recommended for the ‘diehard’ nomads of our group!

Continuing north moving parallel to the Indira Gandhi Canal, we stopped at one point next to a reasonable size fire smouldering heavily and with plenty of damp fuel it was likely to continue for days. Making noises and using gesticulation we ascertained they were the local kiln firing service, we were shown beautifully crafted jugs and pots.
During the 19th century in the Shekhawati region shrewd merchants lived frugally to save huge fortunes and construct fine mansions for their families; these days many lie in ruins or are simply abandon but, Lally has managed to find a charming ‘Haveli’ (private mansion) converted into lodgings where we can overnight to break the journey north and discover some of the intricate artwork smothering these remarkable homes. From here it’s a long drive to our last major city of the north, Amritsar. The first hour is on poor, narrow roads connecting us to better highways where we can average 60+kph. Amritsar itself is archetypal of many Indian cities with modern construction going-on amid what appears to be an accepted chaos and further to my observations on traffic rules I am still perplexed as to the traffic light etiquette? I’m sure some valuable work could be done by optometrists on colour blindness!

We visited and made notes on the border closing ceremony between Pakistan and India at Wagah; to be honest the hype and excitement involved in the choreographed display needs some refining although it will make you smile for the absurdity of it all. The Golden Temple is undoubtedly the cities draw-card, the gold-plated gurdwara or dome glitters in the weak sunshine surrounded by a placid pool of sacred water. Sikhism’s holiest shrine brings millions of pilgrims from all over the world and never ceases to impress even the most cynical observer; this really is a ‘must see’.