Day Twenty Five – Back to the Motherland

21st November 2010 – 160 miles

This morning we did not hang about … partly because there was nothing worth staying for (not even breakfast!) and secondly we wanted to get to Dhaka tonight.

In fact we were at Indian customs so early that we woke the duty officer up!  Like most other border crossings, immigration control is always a breeze.  Customs can be a bit more obstructive and just as we did at Atari, a bribe of $20 had to be paid out to two Indian officials once the process was completed.  And at the Bangladesh / Benapole end, the procedure took slightly longer – yes they did ask for a bribe – and no we did not pay them … we had ran out of dollars!

Once all the paperwork was completed, we had to determine the best route taken to drive to our final destination, Dhaka.  We were worried about travelling on the launch ferries in case they were overladen with people returning to Dhaka from their villages after Eid festivities.  However, these were the most direct routes and so we took a punt and opted for Benapole – Jessore – Rajbari – Daulatdia to Paturia ferry – Dhaka.

We stopped for breakfast at a couple of street vending stalls for some freshly cooked cha, samosa and jalebee – and felt we had arrived!

And aside from the 20 minute roll-on ferry ride, our next stop was Dhaka.  We were worried about driving in Dhaka but the roads were empty.  We were fortunate in that many people were still out of town and businesses were closed following Eid (which also meant that we did not have a reception party).  Instead we checked in to the Sonargaon Pan Pacific for a couple of nights of “convalescence”.

7,537 miles in total travelled over 25 days!

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Day Twenty Four – Driving

20th November 2010 – 469 miles

Today we did nothing but drive, drive and drive some more.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints we could not visit Kolkata, India’s second-largest city and locally regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation – home to Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and celebrated film director Satyajit Ray.

So as to by-pass the city of Kolkata, we took a turn-off for the India-Bangladesh border via Kalyani Bridge, which felt like an eternity to reach.

When we eventually got to the border at Petrapole, we could not find a half-decent place to stay.   Having asked around, we checked-in to the supposedly best place in town, which by our standards was the worst place that we stayed throughout our overland journey.

The only solace in the situation was the hope that we would reach Dhaka tomorrow!

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Day Twenty Three – The Spiritual Capital of India

19th November 2010 – 371 miles

Despite there being a lot of distance to cover today, the roads are seemingly getting better the further east we’re travelling through India.

However, we were making unecessary stops attemping to withdraw cash from ATMs to enable us to pay for fuel.  I must have tried three cashpoints along the way before I managed to obtain some money.  Thanks Bank of India for making me wait in line only to be told that your ATMs had broken down or you were closing once I reached the front of the queue!

We eventually reached Varanasi that evening and checked into a hovel of a hotel, opposite the mainline railway station of the city.  It was such a depressing place, that we had to go out that evening.

Varanasi, located on the banks of the India’s holiest river, the Ganges, is the Hindu faith’s spiritual centre which emanates from its temples [the one pictured here was above a parade of shops] and riverside bathing ghats.  We were warned that Varanasi was not for the faint-hearted and here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public in and around the ghats.

So naturally, we made a bee-line for the old city where the riverbank ghats (about 80 in total) are situated, hoping not to witness a cremation.

As it happens, what we did see was an evening of cultural entertainment hosted in a makeshift open-air amphitheatre set-up at a ghat besides the Ganges.

Following a nice vegetarian meal nearby, we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, and managed to sleep through the trains thundering past our rooms out of exhaustion.

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Day Twenty Two – Eid at the Taj Mahal

18th November 2010 – At Leisure

Originally, we had planned to celebrate Eid in Bangladesh.  However, due to a couple of unforeseen delays, we could think of no better place to celebrate this auspicious occasion than in Agra.

And not to be surpassed, our Eid Namaaz (prayer) was performed at the red sandstone mosque adjacent to the iconic Taj Mahal, amongst 10,000 fellow Muslims.

 

Despite the hype, the Taj Mahal was every bit as good we’d heard.  And better still, Muslims did not have to pay the 750 rupee entrance fee that day!

We then headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then treated ourselves to a haircut, shave and traditional Indian head massage.  If you fancy the prospect of taking a vigorous beating to your head, neck and face by someone much younger (and smaller) than you, then this is definitely the thing for you!

All spruced up, we took a tuk tuk out to see the Agra Fort.  The fort was built primarily as a military structure but Shah Jahan transformed it internally as a palace, which later became his prison for eight years after his son Aurangzeb seized power.  The maze of buildings that forms a city within a city was slightly marred by a) heavy rainfall; and b) an opportunistic security guard.

The aforementioned guard (pictured below) insisted that we should pay the foreigner entrance fee of 300 rupees as opposed to the local rate of 20 rupees that we paid following a spot check [despite the fact that, yet again, we were told by the ticket office to purchase the lesser priced tickets].  Acting on a hunch, Johur then insisted that he escort us back to the ticket office where we would happily pay the difference.  Whilst walking back, he suggested that if we were to pay him some “tea money” then he would overlook our oversight, to which Johur informed him that we would sooner pay the full ticket price than pay him a small bribe.  Knowing full well that he may get into trouble for this, he bid us farewell and wished us a pleasant stay.  Boy did the tables turn … i’ve never seen someone back pedal so fast!

Soaked to the skin, we made our way back to the hotel for dinner, where we met some American MBA students who were on a sabbatical at Chennai.

And following this, we wanted to see how the other half live and popped into the Oberoi hotel over the road from ours for a night cap, reputed to be the best hotel in India.  Room rates range from 30,000 to 262,000 rupees here.

Overall, we had a great day and it was probably the highlight of our overland trip.

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Day Twenty One – Mayhem in Delhi

17th November 2010 – 140 miles

Based upon the previous day’s driving, we were conscious that we did not want to leave Delhi too late to get to Agra, and so sightseeing in Delhi today would have to be a whistle-stop tour.

We left the car (and keys – more about this later…) at the hotel and set off on the new Metro system heading to Old Delhi.

Getting off at Chowri Bazaar we were bedazzled and bamboozled by the crazy hubbub that you would expect Delhi to be.  The only way to travel through this frenzy was by rickshaw.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque.  We were charged an exorbitant amount to take or cameras in (under duress as we could not leave them anywhere!) but this was compensated by the spectacular views of the city.  

We then ventured to the market below to purchase our Eid attire.

Then onwards to the Red Fort, the best place to imagine the Mughal city’s splendour. 

They have a two-tier pricing structure here for entry – 10 rupees for Indians and 250 for foreigners.  We attempted to purchase foreigner tickets but were ushered to the local queue, where we paid the local rate but were also shortchanged by 50 rupees for the privilege (nudge is as good as a wink!).

All this sightseeing had worked up an appetite and we’d been told that Delhiites love to eat.  We ate at the legendary Karim’s where they’ve been serving divine Mughlai cuisine since 1913.

Whilst here I’d received a call from home to inform us that our GPS emergency alert (left in the car) had been activated!  Bearing in mind that all of our personal belongings were packed in the car, in retrospect it probably was not the best idea for me to entrust the hotel staff with the car keys.

We made a mad dash back for the hotel (opting to forego visiting Humayun’s Tomb), expecting the worse, only to find that the hotel owner had set off the tracker (thinking it was the immobiliser) when he moved the car.  Phew but a valuable lesson learnt.

We set off for Agra.  Despite being on the right side of Delhi (south east and towards Agra), it took us at least 2 hours to leave the city limits.

Escaping the hustle and bustle of Delhi, and our plans to celebrate Eid at Agra, we justified checking in to separate rooms at a top-notch hotel (not far from the Taj Mahal) to recharge our batteries.

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Day Twenty – Delhi Belly before reaching Delhi

16th November 2010 – 337 miles

We were worried that the border crossing would be “out of the frying pan and into the fire!” but this was far from the truth, or at least in part.

Passing through Pakistan border control was merely a formality as was immigration on the Indian (Atari) side.  We were however slightly delayed at Indian customs.

Although the officers were most welcoming, there did not seem to be any sense of urgency. 

We almost came a cropper when one of the customs officials asked us to point out the engine number [which none of us (including himself) could find] and to open up our storage containers (containing serviceable parts for the car) on the roof.  No one else had asked us for this!?

However, following a cup of tea with them, the (assisted) purchase of a bottle of whisky on behalf of one of the officers and payment of a customary baksheesh (or “tip”), we were allowed to proceed.

En route to Delhi, we took a slight detour to visit Amritsar – the home of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the spectacular Golden Temple.  From the crush of the people-packed old city combined with the mechanical traffic, the gold-plated gurdwara glittered in the middle of its holy pool and was a welcome break from the frenetic city.

Nasir has had an upset stomach since D G Khan and so we played it safe for lunch with a Dominos Pizza.  As it happens, the vegetable supreme with spicy paneer was quite nice!

Then onwards to Delhi – the worst roads that we had encountered throughout the trip [i’m not including the road between Loralai to D G Khan as this could not be described as a road!].  And to make things worse, the trucks drive at a snail’s pace in the fast lane and refuse to pull over so we constantly ended up undertaking them.

As a consequence, we reached the sprawling metropolis of Delhi at 1am and spent the next two hours driving around to find a hotel that was not fully occupied. 

The upside of this is that we managed to see most of the city, including the Commonwealth Games village, without encountering any traffic.  The downside was that our vehicle stuck out like a sore thumb and we were stopped a couple of times at police checkpoints in a (failed) attempt to extort money out of us.

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Day Nineteen – The Home Straight to India

14th November 2010 – 238 miles

Having spent the past five days driving under police escort, often travelling within 10km of the Afghan border, it was refreshing to drive in Pakistan freely for our final leg to the Pakistan-India border.

We set off for Lahore on what we thought was the highway (motorway) only to find that we were vying for space on the roads amongst tractors, bicycles, horse and carts.  Having driven on this road for the best part of 3 hours (and covered only a third of our intended distance that day), it finally dawned upon us that this could not possibly be our planned route.

With a bit of backtracking, we found the highway and practically drove 60mph+ thereafter.

Being so close to Qurbani, there were more livestock being transported in vehicles than people!  In fact, we hit gridlock on the outskirts of Lahore where an impromptu bazaar was being held to sell livestock (cows, sheep, goats, camels … you name it, we saw it).

We originally planned to get to get to Wagah to see the border-closing ceremony, where members of the Indian and Pakistani military meet at the border to engage in a 30-minute high-octane display of pure theatre – vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. 

Unfortunately, we did not make it there in time and so checked in at the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motel at the border – a quiet and unassuming four-room guesthouse where we were the only guests!

The place was basic, clean but most importantly run by very friendly staff.  We were made most welcome with a freshly cooked supper and entertainment laid on by a member of staff, an avid singer and tabla player.  In summary, a great evening to top-off an epic drive through Pakistan.

On balance, our highlight of Pakistan was seeing the Islamic Relief projects first hand, which was a great and humbling experience.  It’s a shame that we could not see more of the country, due to security restrictions, as everyone was very friendly (including the police).

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Day Eighteen – Escorted Across the Border

13th November 2010 – 110 miles

Following breakfast, we cleaned the car inside and out, whilst anxiously waiting for clearance to enter the Punjab.

Islamic Relief must have worked tirelessly through the night to obtain our clearance and as we headed for the border, the scene could have come straight out of a Bollywood movie!

Picture this … we rock up at high sun and meet the Chief of Police in his courtyard, in a string vest and lunghi, dying his beard!

To cut a long story short, following a cup of tea and massaging the chief’s ego, we were granted permission to travel on to Punjab and DG Khan (phew!).

And believe me our next hour’s drive was the scariest and yet most picturesque drive of the whole trip.  This long, winding and barren passage skirting the edge of mountains is called Fort Munro, a hill station formed by the British and is truely a breathtaking drive. 

Unfortunately, we were unable to stop (aside from the countless and obligatory checkpoints) as we were escorted by the police (and at one point commandos!).  We were told that this was for our own protection but we were given the distinct impression that they wanted to move us on from the area.  Aside from being flagged down by Khawar Saeed, the District Co-Ordinator of Islamic Relief, we were practically frog marched straight to Multan.  As a consequence, we were unable to visit Islamic Relief’s projects at Muzzaffargarh and surrounding flood affected areas.

When we arrived at Islamic Relief’s offices in Multan, food was prepared for us and we were greeted by their team.  Syed Mudassar Shah outlined the effect of flooding in the area and that aid requirements have moved from the need for food to now shelter before winter sets in.

Following dinner, Islamic Relief staff drove our car through the cantonment [military quarters] to our guesthouse, with us following in their car, which was a rather surreal moment.

I slept well that night in one of their penthouse suites whilst Johur and Nasir’s room was positioned next to the kitchen, quite literally.

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Day Seventeen – The Longest Short-Cut in Living History

12th November 2010 – 288 miles

Today, we experienced the worst kind of terrain imaginable.  The Lonely Planet states “the road from Quetta to DG Khan in Punjab is little used and is a direct and adventurous route.  You’re likely to attract the attention of the police should you show up here – we were advised against taking this route …” – and boy were they so right!

After Loralai (“bustling with bushy beards and huge turbans …, although there are plenty of guns on display and several travellers have reported feeling less than welcome here” – LP), there were no real roads to speak of.  Thankfully, our Landrover Defender took this terrain in its stride.

As if this was not bad enough, we arrived at the border between Balochistan and Punjab at sunset to be told that we would not be let through unless we could produce a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Interior Ministry in Islamabad.  You see, unbeknown to us (despite supplying a full itinerary of our journey to the High Commission for Pakistan who I am informed duely forwarded this on to the Interior Ministry), our onward journey to Dera Ghazi Khan was (unofficially) inaccessible to foreigners.  Why?  The area is “a highly sensitive military zone“.

Having arrived there on a Friday night, we were not going to get an NOC issued (if at all) until Monday and turning back was not an option – this would add at least three days to our journey to by-pass DG Khan.

Short of causing a diplomatic incident (by the way, the British High Commission were less than helpful in this regard), Islamic Relief tirelessly pulled a lot of strings on our behalf.

With support from the local police chief, high ranking politicians and district ministers, we were informed to come back again the following morning.

In the meantime, accommodation was arranged (by one of the ministers) at a local landowner’s residence, Tariq Khan, as his guest.  At this point, we were all emotionally, physically and mentally drained and retired to bed in the clothes that we were wearing that day, in the hope that we would be granted entry to the Punjab the following day…

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Day Sixteen – Visiting Islamic Relief’s Projects

11th November 2010 – 202 miles

In Balochistan, life can be challenging with limited access to clean water, healthcare, electricity and gas.  This morning, we visited some water sanitation projects with Adil of Islamic Relief.

The province of Balochistan is prone to extreme weather and earthquakes.  The area often suffers from drought and flooding, which leaves the people extremely vulnerable.

The Balochistan Community Development Programme’s activities include:

  • Installing solar panels for electricity and to power water pumps
  • Installation of tanks to distribute rainwater
  • Construction of windmills to power water distribution
  • Installation of hand-powered water pumps
  • Construction of household toilets
  • Training of community members in repair and maintenance

At these projects, we met with Abdullah Raza Hassari, a very talented young man who was clearly capable of achieving great things in life, if given the opportunity.  He could not afford to continue his education studies and attend university and so Islamic Relief have engaged him as the co-ordinator of a “youth forum” that mobilise the youth and creates champions from within the community.  Sadly, with very little opportunities presented in terms of education and employment, kids are otherwise forced into drug taking and / or smuggling.  Thank you Abdullah for supplying us with your “light of hope” article – it was very touching.

Whilst in the area, we also visited the local school.  We witnessed substantially less numbers of students in the senior years as compared to the junior classes as kids are forced into work to meet their families’ livelihood requirements, a sad fact of life in this area, again re-iterated by the work of the “youth forum”.  However, whilst education is important in this area, the major priority at the moment is providing basic infrastructure to live.

Driving on to Nowkshi, we visited Islamic Relief’s Eye Hospital where we ate lunch with their team.  In rural areas, eye care facilities are almost non-existent, hence this intervention to provide support to this community without proper access to care and treatment.  We were shown around and impressed that the equipment was as modern as in the Western World.  The hospital is able to perform all types of major surgery as well as screening and mobile outreach services in remote villages and schools.  And to date, this hospital has saved over 30,000 peoples’ eye sight!

That night, we stayed at the Gardinia Resort in Quetta, a hotel popular amongst NGOs, where we were treated to dinner by Nazeem and his team of Islamic Relief.

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