INDIA - THE LONG WAY EAST
End of January we arrived again in Gokarna, set up our base above Kuddle beach at a beautiful and quiet view point above the sea and were eager to follow our plan of doing a week of yoga and relaxing after all the climbing in Badami.
Lisa & Martin rented a room down at the beach and the first days went by with cold drinks, swimming and backgammon. Berna had evaluated multiple yoga options and we chose one ran by a Canadian teacher. Our early morning experience was everything else than overwhelming and all of us were happy when it was over, unanimously we decided to skip yoga at Kuddle - if you want to do serious yoga rather go for a month to Mysore or northern India and avoid the pseudo yoga at the coast. As a consequence we had more time for drinks, backgammon and the beach. On one of our few hikes along the beautiful coast, Martin wrenched his ankle which resulted in even more time for backgammon and cold drinks for everyone. That way we spent a good week in Kuddle (and most of it on the same terrace) until we got sick of the place full of people in search of self-discovery or enlightenment. We packed our stuff (including Lisa & Martin) and moved south along the coast, passing through beautiful backwaters and stopping at empty beaches before reaching Mangalore. There we said good bye to our fellow travellers and started our long way east. The first goal was Savandurga, a huge granite monolith west of Bengaluru with some multi pitch climbing. The road - we had to take the southern path via Mysore as the main road via Hassan was blocked due to construction work - led us first through intensely populated areas to give way to wild forests and hills as we made our way up to Madikeri at almost 1200m above sea level. This beautiful and winding road runs through coffee plantations and for the first time in India we saw plenty of street coffees instead of tea shops. Overall the area gives the impression of being much richer and cleaner than other parts of India. Winding down the road towards Mysore the landscape gets again less exciting - as is Mysore itself. Even though many books write great things about Mysore our guess is that after an afternoon in the city you have seen it all (at least for people with our taste). OK, the palace is nice
and the food is good (we had the best masala dosa here at the bus station) but still, it is an Indian city and thus we continued our way to Savandurga. The roads are refreshingly good, you see many more private cars than elsewhere in India and soon we reached Ramanagara where we took a left. Beautiful granite blocks wherever you look (yes, there is climbing too!!) and after a few kilometres of dirt road we reached Savandurga just underneath the giant granite block.
We moved with our Rouletout to what we considered a nice place just to be welcomed by a family from Bengaluru that explained to us that tonight is an important temple festival here and that we are invited to come - we should also move closer to the temple, so everything is easier, no sooner said than done. We quickly explored the access to our multi pitch climb (the face is facing south so we wanted to start really early) and then joined the amazing festival at the temple in Savandurga. As we were the only foreigners the excitement was big and people tried to explain to us what’s going on.
Of course we were also invited for food and only with a lot of talking and excuses we made it to bed before midnight. We started our climb (called Beladingalu) early morning - Mutlu followed us to the beginning of pitch 1 - and had to re-adjust to slab climbing on granite with run-outs of more than 15 meters. The day was hot and even though the last 2 (very easy) pitches of 8 were missing the stations it was a rewarding climb. Out of water we hiked down the mountain to learn that half the village was following our climb, congratulating us on our achievement. We re-hydrated our bodies, ranged the climbing gear (a longer climbing pause was ahead of us) and got ready to move further east. Our next stop should be Bengaluru where we had arranged to meet a climbing pal we had met in Badami. Traffic in Bengaluru with its 9 million inhabitants is intense but much more relaxed and orderly than in any other city we had seen so far in India. It took us a while before we reached the center and found a parking spot but at about lunch time we were ready for beer tasting in one of the few micro breweries of the city. It is also the place where we enjoyed our first beef since many months and where we found the first decent WiFi in India. Still it is a city and as we are not city dwellers we continued our way east - Chennai (only about half as big as Bengaluru) was on the list, it should be easy to get a Thai visa there and it is one of the few places on the east coast with decent beaches. Chennai - the capital of Tamil Nadu - is again different. Not a nice town and not as modern as Bengaluru but the first town with road signs, lots and lots of police (which is normally not visible in India) and garbage separation in public areas. We found a nice place not far from the visa agency for the night but police made us leave after long discussions so that we stayed next to Marina beach, a 13km strip of sand in the city that is as crowded as it can be, even for Indian standards.
We applied for our visas and moved south along the coast for our 2 day wait, visiting a crocodile bank where dozens and dozens of different crocodile types are being bred and staying at empty beaches where we ran into dozens of giant but dead sea turtles.
We also managed to get stuck in the sand, or better mud so that the 2 days passed relatively quickly.
As soon as we had collected our visas we changed our heading to north-north-east, we had 2 weeks to reach Moreh, the border town to Myanmar, where we had planned to meet with old and new friends to cross Myanmar, 2 weeks to drive 3’500km on Indian roads, 2 weeks to explore a little bit of north eastern India. The road north from Chennai is good but boring. The landscape is boring, there is little traffic so we made up to 400km per day driving from after breakfast to just before dawn. Sometimes we just stopped at one of the many Indian Petrol gas stations just to be surrounded by curious truck drivers with their incredibly old Tata trucks and by the typical dozen of young men working at the gas station. One morning I realised that one of the wheel bolts of the left rear wheel is broken. I decide to stop at a Bharat Benz (the Indian brand of Mercedes Benz) workshop. After 2 hours, many teas, and after having explained our trivial problem to at least 10 people of at least as many hierarchies the conclusion was - we don’t have wheel bolts in stock. It was their luck that all decision makers had disappeared for breakfast; so I left without killing someone. Still angry about the lost time and the typical Indian way of working (at least in bigger companies) we continued our journey almost forgetting about the broken wheel bolt. At the next stop 3 bolts were gone - now it is urgent and I have only 2 spares. We continue a little slower and at a petrol station I stop to ask where I can get some bolts. A tuk tuk showed us the way towards a small repair shop but I stopped in the middle of the village on the 4-lane road, by now 5 of 8 bolts were gone and I was not willing to risk loosing the whole wheel. Of course the small shop had no bolts of the required size and while Rouletout attracted more and more people a guy showed up that really wanted to help. We used his motorbike to drive to Rouletout, remove the wheel and check the bolts. Then he decided that we drive to the car parts shop in the next town, first filling 3 litres of petrol in his motor bike. We raced the 30km to Sirkakulam and to my surprise the owner of the shop was able to find similar bolts in his incredible mess. Back at Rouletout my new friend had organised a second mechanic and within minutes the bolts were changed in front of an audience of up to 50 or 60 people,
and all that before nightfall. After this short episode we decided to take a short break and stopped for a night in Chandipur - an interesting beach as the water recedes up to 4 kilometres during the ebb tide and the last chance to taste sea water before turning north (or entering the unbelievably dirty and crowded West Bengal with Kolkata as its capital). We decided to leave Kolkata aside and headed north towards Burdwan and Baidyapur. Left and right of the pothole collection (these are definitely not roads) are rice fields, nice and green or dry and brown, village after village and mountains of dust and black smut from the endless convoys of Tata trucks or the occasional brick oven that is probably heated with old tires. Our daily output shrank like ice in the sun to barely 200km and at times we didn’t even leave Rouletout for the night stop as the amount of dirt and rubbish seemed just unsurmountable. Crossing Baharampur was the low light of our stay in India. Trucks and busses, bumper to bumper, on dust roads make this city of 300’000 the greyest place on earth we have ever seen, on the outskirts women and children are sorting rubbish - mostly retrieving plastic and sorting it by colour from stinking mountains of dirt. We crossed the Ganges near Farakka and continued on roads, lined by broken down trucks, that should be forbidden by the Geneva convention. After having passed the narrow strip of Indian land between Bangladesh and Nepal near Siliguri - the gate to Sikkim - things started to improve rapidly. A beautiful mountainous countryside, a nice and winding road and famous places such as Darjeeling made the journey again worth its effort. We tore off a bumper of a small bus in a narrow turn but after a short discussion and 2000 rupees later we continued. We headed east close to the border with Bhutan and near Guwahati we crossed the Brahmaputra. For the first time in India we saw a lot of military, China is near and the border to the neighbouring giant is still at dispute, with sometimes erupting skirmishes. The military is probably also the reason that roads up here in the north east are much better, often 4-lane with little traffic. The only challenge is, that the concept of lanes is not well understood. Cars, trucks and yokes of oxen use any lane in any direction. It happened more than once that we had to emergency stop while passing a truck because a car came our way on the wrong lane. We passed Guwahati, the capital of Assam, and stopped for a few days in Kaziranga national park. A beautiful and well maintained luxury hotel was willing to accept Rouletout as guest in its garden - provided we consume from time to time in their restaurant.
We enjoyed the safaris on elephant and with the jeep on the shores of Brahmaputra, saw plenty of rhinos and other animals,
enjoyed the nice food and simply relaxed after all the many days of driving. Our last stretch to Moreh was only 500km and we had a few days left. We continued along the Brahmaputra for a while and then turned south towards Nagaland, a small mountainous Indian state inhabited by countless tribes by many just called “hill people” speaking 36 different languages. Not only the landscape changes again, also the faces just do not look Indian anymore. The Chinese / Tibetan influence becomes obvious and also the dresses and behaviour of the people are very different. Christianity is the predominant religion here, no village without (Baptiste) church or bible school - a result of work by American missionaries in the 19th century.
We passed the border to Manipur - a state that was off limits for tourists until just over a year ago - driving through only sparsely populated mountains and stopped at Loktak lake for the night where local fishermen brought us fresh fish and tried to tell us tales from world war 2 in Manipur.
Our choice for the last piece of road on Indian soil were very narrow dirt roads leading south towards Moreh before we again hit the main road near Leikai. Regular stops at police and military check points slowed us down as did the extremely winding and mountainous but good road so that we arrived in Moreh only late in the afternoon. We set up camp in the local police station and only shortly after our arrival our friends Anja & Jo (whom we had already met in Teheran) with their VW T3, Ian, Stiena, Rasmus and Ali with their Landy and Coco & Oli on their Tenere’s showed up.
The next day will lead us into Myanmar and will mark the end of our 3 months stay in India. It was way to little time to explore this huge and diverse country. We did not see many areas we would have liked to visit, the extreme south, the north and we definitely did not spend enough time in the north east. Already on our way from Chennai we started to think about a second visit to India, one that would allow us to cover some of the areas we did miss. Maybe we will be back in late summer, coming in from Tibet and Nepal. This would also allow us to see how India develops, if prime minister Modi delivers on his promises to improve the often disastrous infrastructure, to fight corruption and the immense bureaucracy and thus make India a country that can be a successful player in the international arena. We are curious to see it and wish success - thanks for a great time India!