Let me share a secret with you. If you like the idea of travel, the best journeys are road trips in the Indian subcontinent. I have driven over 1,00,000 kms in this region but nothing comes close to the journey I took to the Northeast and to Nepal in 2010 for 49 days. As a road tripper, my dose of adrenaline comes from charting new routes. And this was a drive into the great unknown. What waited for me was a diversity of attractions that probably no other itinerary on the planet can match: mountains, rivers, lakes, festivals, history, religion, bazaars, tea estates, off-roading, towns, villages and so much more.
I started on my four-wheeler, a Pajero, from Delhi in the wee hours of the morning, and drove straight to Nepal. After a few days there, I exited its eastern border to travel to West Bengal, Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, before taking a U-turn back to Delhi at Kibithu, the easternmost motorable point in India on the Chinese border. Yes, all this is doable for Indian citizens. At a budget of one’s choosing. I swung between choosing extremely low-budget stays and food to indulging on other occasions, but my daily expense, on an average, hovered around Rs 1,000, excluding fuel. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get butterflies in my stomach during the planning process — after all, many of these regions have been at the centre of long conflicts.
Of course, I was under no delusions about it being a comfortable trip. I packed extra woollens, beddings, soap, towels, water, snacks, tools, tyre puncture kit, first aid and medicines kit, loads of cash hidden away under mats, extra copies of all my documents, maps and my coffee.
The day came, and I was off, with my wife and a friend, both ever ready for such adventures.
The first discovery? You can have breakfast in Delhi and reach in good time for dinner at either the Shuklaphanta or Bardia National Parks in Nepal. Yes. Nepal is closer than you think. Good roads and a sturdy car have made the subcontinent a much smaller place. I covered not just these two reserves but Chitwan and Koshi Tappu, too. I explored these on foot, in Land Rovers built before World War II, on elephant back, and in boats and rafts on pristine rivers cutting through these forests. Sightings included rhinos, elephants, swamp and spotted deer, crocodiles, wild buffaloes and many other species of fauna. I had a close call with an angry rhino while on a foot safari in Chitwan; I also discovered a Jatayu Restaurant there, where vultures are fed in a bid to restore their dwindling population. We had a close call when a wild male tusker elephant came looking for a mate in the stables of our lodge in Chitwan, damaging staff quarters in the process; believe it or not, this happened on Valentine’s Day.
There is much more to Nepal than wildlife. If there is a perfect holiday destination, it is Pokhara. Settled around the beautiful Fewa Lake at an altitude of 3,000 ft with the 23,000-ft high Machhapuchre (literally translating to ‘a fish tail’) peak dominating the landscape, it is a picture perfect setting. I hiked up the Peace Stupa for a panoramic view of Pokhara, shopped for the finest collection of Tibetan artefacts and savoured true espressos and yummy wood-fired oven pizzas. More awaits the adventurous there, including treks on the Annapurna circuit, whitewater rafting, paragliding and other high adrenaline activities.
What got my pulse racing was the prospect of visiting Thamel, the “tourist badland” of Kathmandu. A decade of political troubles has kept backpackers away, but Thamel is still the place for the best of coffee, food and shopping in Nepal.
And then there is history, religion and mythology. In Lumbini, I saw the spot where the Buddha is believed to have been born. The Shiva Temple in Bhairavsthan near Tansen claims to have the biggest trishul (trident) in the world; you can choose to be high on pot (cannabis) offered by priests even as local singers like Til Bahadur entertain you with Gandharva songs. Pashupatinath, the most revered of temples for Lord Shiva in the world, is in Kathmandu; I happened to be there on Shivaratri and witnessed a congregation of tens of thousands of devotees. Hundreds of sadhus come here to pray and fast on the occasion; some offered me marijuana sticks for Rs 10 each as a prasad. I was fascinated by the ancient settlements of Patan, the city of fine arts, and Bhaktapur, both in the capital. What disappointed me was the filth of Janakpur, the supposed birthplace of Sita.
The second leg of the journey took me to the Northeast, a region where few of our countrymen venture to. Our maps had only limited utility; new highways are coming up even as earlier roads become defunct. And then there are parts where roads and bridges get washed away and one has to ask locals for alternative directions; I had to drive over dry river beds and crossed water bodies on bamboo rafts and bridges. No map will tell you this.
I took a night’s halt in Jaldapara Sanctuary in West Bengal before visiting Manas and Kaziranga, both national parks being UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Assam. In Manas, I witnessed a unique phenomena: a herd of elephants, from infants to granddaddies playing, jostling and laughing with one another. Kaziranga is Rhino land, a place to be visited by everyone in the world. I took a brief detour to Bhutan, spending a couple of days in Thimpu before entering Arunachal Pradesh.
My goal was to reach Kibithu but the journey turned out to be the destination itself. From state capital Itanagar, my first stop was Ziro: a hidden wonder on the planet, and home to the Apatani tribe whose members stand out with their tattooed faces, knotted hair, and big, black, rounded nose and ear pieces. I danced with the Nyishi tribe during their annual Nyokum Yullo festival in Boasimla. I experienced village life in Daporijo, crossed bamboo suspension footbridges over the forbidding Siang river, drove my car over all kinds of terrains before the final high altitude drive to Kibithu. The weather was taking a turn for worse, and the return leg to Hayuliang in the plains took three days even as landslides and road blocks forced me to spend nights in villages.
When I look back on that journey, I would not exchange it for any other. Yes, there were moments of anxiety — a landslide in Kibithu, for instance, stalled us midway and the rocks falling from the mountains made the ordeal scarier. Food was a challenge in most places, especially for vegetarians. When everything failed, there was Maggi in India and Wai Wai in Nepal.
Despite all of this, I felt changed in many ways. The wild and the virgin showed me the world God created and wanted us to preserve. I made friends with people who I would never have met otherwise. I realised we are all so different in so many ways, but deep within we are all the same.
So when are you hitting the road?
Ajay Jain is a travel writer. He blogs at kunzum.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.