The long drive home

Photos: Rishad Saam Mehta  

We easily breezed through Mongolian immigration, but the customs official on the Chinese side seemed to have had a fight with his better half that morning. He demanded every bag be opened, and then put on his chemical warfare-certified mask and probed the contents, as if he was he was expecting to find bio-hazardous material. Thankfully, all unmentionables had been freshly laundered in Ulaanbaatar, and nothing of a nuclear nature happened.

Erlianhot, the border town on the Chinese side, was like a city in the U.S., with big buildings, rectangular blocks, traffic lights and wide roads. Stark and deserted Mongolia, where towns were haphazard collections of houses, seemed like a faraway dream, though in reality it was just five km away. The contrast between the two countries was severe and surprising.

Driving in China was like a ‘sterile driving in Germany’ experience, because while the expressways were as good as the autobahns, they were rudely restricted to 80, 100 or 120 kph that was not even a canter for the Audi Q7. It had to be kept on a tight leash, as speed cameras were stacked at short intervals, and they would always flash, no matter what the speed. I thought of this as physiological photography to ensure that the driver is aware that the cameras are in working order.

China was also where this car was a sort of celebrity, as it hadn’t been introduced there as yet. Every day, we had to deal with paparazzi, especially on the expressway. Cars would pull up alongside; the windows would roll down and out would come a hand with a mobile phone and snap a few pictures. Sometimes, passengers would yell out encouragement or ask us where we were from. At one service area, one girl actually signalled me to stop as I was about to pull out from the parking, and she hopped out with a selfie stick and took some selfies with the car. In another instance, a car tailed us for almost 50 km to a tollbooth, where he cut in right across the nose of the Q like a gangster and jumped out of his car. He gestured that he was sorry and started speaking excitedly in Chinese. The tollbooth attendant, a good-looking girl, translated for us. It seemed that Mr. Highway Gangster actually ran an Audi service centre, and he was so excited to see the all-new Q7, that he wanted to offer us lunch and a free carwash and service.

At the Great Wall of China, the first of the two wonders of the modern world that we would pass (the other being the Taj Mahal in Agra), local Chinese tourists actually started taking pictures of the car rather than the wall.

In bustling cities like Xian, Chengdu and Dali, traffic often came to a standstill, as passengers in cars in adjoining lanes slowly passed by, allowing their passengers time to take a picture.

And then, there was the food. The favourite, by far for all, was the ‘hotpot’. In this, boiling chilli oil comes to the table along with raw meats, eggs and vegetables. You have to dip the food in the oil for it to cook and then dip it in tasty sauces before eating it. Though very potent and spicy, this remains the tastiest food of the entire trip.

Ruili is where we crossed over into Myanmar, and once again, the visual difference between the two countries is apparent.

Firstly, the roads immediately deteriorated right from where we entered Myanmar; secondly, while in China, most people were dressed in Western clothes, here, they mostly wore longyis and shirts, a dressing style that hasn’t changed for decades.

But what was apparent right from the beginning, and in the two long weeks that we spent in Myanmar, was that life moves at a slower pace than in neighbouring China. Drivers are more courteous, people will always ask for permission before they pull out a phone to take a picture, and, in general, people are very friendly.

Mandalay, with its serene monks, gilded stupas and temples, was where we took a day off from the driving – a halt that cost us dearly.

Because that night it rained so hard that four of the 50 bridges on the road to India were washed away. We had to camp for two weeks before they were repaired, and we could start off again.

To enter India finally, after the long halt in Myanmar, was euphoric. Even though we drove in from clean Tamu in Myanmar, into chaotic and dusty Moreh in India, it exuded a sense of home and belonging. There would be no more border crossings or broken bridges that would stand between Mumbai and us.

However, there were 500 km of the worst sections of road in the entire drive on the route from Imphal to Guwahati. In fact, we braced ourselves for more bad roads between Guwahati and Siliguri, but were pleasantly surprised to find them in a very good state, except for the odd section or two.

Traffic, however, was another story. It is a sad fact that the worst road manners and brazen discourtesy on the roads is found in India.

Just outside Surat, a cop stopped us, demanding to check the Pollution under Control Certificate, and asked us where we were coming from. “Germany,” we told him and as we explained our trip that would complete 20,286 km before we reached Mumbai, his jaw dropped almost to his waist.

It was a reaction that I would have to get used to in the coming days.

(The last article of a three-part series on the author’s road trip)

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 10:47:52 PM |

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