Three Coimbatoreans tell Esther Elias of their incredible journey to the ends of the earth and back

One August midnight, Gurmit Singh crawled out of a tiny blue tent beside the Manasarovar freshwater lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, 15,000 feet above sea level. Eyes half shut and body slightly damp from the drizzle seeping through the tent roof, he stretched his legs and surveyed their parked Indian-registered SUVs. That’s when he saw a straight line of unmoving light, joining the sky and the water, bang in the lake’s centre. Just to be sure he wasn’t hallucinating, he awoke fellow travellers — Coimbatoreans Jeeva Nantham and Damien Leo, and Delhiites Sanjay Madan and Purvesh Patel. Together, they witnessed the unexplained nightly natural phenomenon, one of Manasarovar’s well-kept secrets. Worth driving for 21 days from Coimbatore to China? A resounding yes!

The plan was hatched in 2011 when Jeeva heard of bikers riding two-wheelers from Coimbatore to the Himalayas. He did the same in a four-wheeler last year. This time, he sketched a route from Coimbatore to Kathmandu in Nepal, through to the Tibetan town of Zhangmu on the Nepal-China border, and onto Nyalam, Saga, Zhongba, Mansarovar, Darchen and back. For company, he roped in two friends from Coimbatore and touched base with Facebook friend and roadtrip enthusiast, Sanjay.

Eight months of paperwork for visas, road permits and driving licences later, a Mitsubishi Outlander left Coimbatore on August 2 and a Toyota Land Cruiser left Delhi on August 10 to meet in Kathmandu for the first time.

Armed with ready-to-eat food, dry fruits and chikki, maps, spares, first aid and prayers, the group set forth from Kathmandu for their 14-day drive through China. It was a 3,100 km drive of absolute bliss, the group recalls. Through cloud-kissed mountains and forested roadsides, they drove over 400 km each day on open highways, with the occasional off-roading. “It’s untouched beauty of every kind of terrain — grasslands, sand dunes and plains — there’s nothing missing. At most points, you can see 100 km ahead of you but there’s not a soul on the road,” says Jeeva.

On an average, cars hit 100 to150 kmph but the group had to acclimatise themselves to minus degrees, altitude sickness and right-hand driving. “Wild asses tend to run onto the road from nowhere as well. We’d carried oxygen cylinders and basic medicines but caution was our only option with the nearest hospital often 400 km away,” says Jeeva.

The checkposts, however, were the trying points. “Although we were in Tibet, the Chinese guards call the shots and they couldn’t recall the last time Indian-registered cars had crossed the border,” he says. So, long enquiries followed by checking and rechecking of permits ensued. “At the Zhangmu checkpost, it was a nine-hour wait for clearance. If it wasn’t for our guide Vi from the Chinese roadtrip agency, Navo, we wouldn’t have made it through,” says Jeeva.

At those altitudes, water and food are daily challenges. “At every village we stopped at, we’d stock over 15 to 20 litres of water as well as buy basic vegetables and rice for we didn’t know when we’d see the next village,” says Jeeva. On the road, small meals were cooked on a makeshift stove in the gap between parked cars that blocked the wind. Yak meat and milk were the staple diet of the locals, so when Leo once spotted a watermelon shop, he stopped both cars, sat on the road, cut, cleaned and devoured one right there. Says Jeeva, “By the end of the trip, each of us was lighter by at least 5 kg.”

Accommodation and connectivity weren’t exactly common luxuries either. “The car’s GPS can direct you only so far. After a point, it shows you just your speed and elevation; so, we fell back on the routes we’d drawn on physical maps,” says Jeeva. At many villages, curious Tibetans, drawn by the foreign registrations, would make conversation, often leading them to little shacks for the night. “The cots would be broken, blankets missing and there’d be no water in the bathroom, but at least it was a place to stay!” says Jeeva. At Darchen, a Chennaite spotted their Tamil Nadu registration driving by and went from house to house for two days till he tracked down the group to find out what they were doing so far from home.

For the most part, people were friendly and helpful, except they were few and far between. “Before we left Kathmandu, we voice-recorded all our details and mailed them home just in case things went wrong and nobody was around to help,” says Jeeva. Fortunately nothing did, and the group is back home with a small vocabulary of Chinese words, treasured memories of colourful prayer flags, snow-capped trees, bathing in a medicinal hot-water spring, bungee jumping over a river in Kodhari, wading in the ice-cold Manasarovar lake, and a thousand-odd pictures of roads that look like they lead to heaven. Before June 2013, they’ll be off again; this time through China to Laos and Thailand. “We can’t wait!”