Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Some tips for an Indian Road trip

1. Plan for driving  maximum of 300-400 kms a day. Purpose of the road trip is to explore and learn about this vast country, not mile munching. Also it is better to drive only in day time.

2. Start early. You should be in your vehicle by 7.00 AM max. That will save you from city traffic and help you cover more places.

3. Every nook and corner of India is replete with history. So read up on places you visit before hand and plan to visit them. In my trip to Gujarat what I saw varied from a Jurassic age fossilized tree to remnants of a 4500 year old city to an ancient temple reconstructed 70 years ago.

4. Have a flexible schedule. Don't pressurize yourself into achieving so many kilometers per day or so many places to be seen.

5. Accept that you can't see them all. India is huge. Try to take as much of it as you can. You can never see it fully.

6. Take a medicine kit with basic medicines. There's nothing a DOLO - 650 cannot cure.

7. Carry a garbage bag in the car and use it for your trash. Don't litter the places you visit.

8. Stay in comfortable hotels for the night. You will need the rest after driving so long.  Don't trust reviews in online portals. Decide on a couple of hotels based on online reviews. Visit them, check the room (and bathroom) before paying up.

9. You can negotiate hotel tariffs. Mostly you will be checking in by evening. So tell them that you are using it only for half a day. You can get a 30-40% discount on rack rates. As of now, for Rs. 2500.00-3000.00 per night you can get decent rooms in most Indian cities. With Air conditioning, clean linen, car parking and free wifi.

10. Don't wait for complimentary breakfast in hotels. Check out early and hit the road. You can always have Vada Pav on the road or Cup noodles before you start.

11. Be adventurous with food (if you are an Indian.) Avoid standard Naan - Paneer Butter Masala. Try the local cuisine.

12.  If you think you need 1000 songs for a week's trip, take double that number. A good music collection makes the drive more enjoyable.

13. Know the local statutory regulations. Gujarat has liquor prohibition. You don't want to be caught with liquor when they check your vehicle. And trust me, the police will check other state registered vehicles often.

14. Fuel up when your tank is half empty. Don't push it till reserve. There will be stretches where the next petrol pump is 50-60 kms away.

15. Digital payments (cards and e wallets) work for fuel and hotel rent in India. Food is mostly cash in highways. Toll payments can be made by credit cards / e wallets. I tried paying toll by cards from Bhuj to Chennai. Except for three toll plazas in Karnataka all others accepted them.

16. Keep enough cash. Roughly 15-20% of your trip budget. Don't trust ATMs to dispense cash, atleast for the next 6 months.

17. Most of the Indians are warm and friendly. Talk to them.

18. Hire Guides when visiting historical monuments.

19. You are going to be with your fellow traveler in close quarters for long duration. Invariably tempers will flare up. Some sulking will be there. That is part of the trip experience. Don't hang on to it. Let it go and get back to normal as soon as possible.

20. A good vehicle, great companion and a little bit of craziness is all that is needed for a good road trip. Go out and enjoy this vast country.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

QUIT Days 13-15

Day 13.

Today's plan was to start from Mumbai and go as close to Bengaluru as possible. Depending on time, we thought of halting either at Belgaum or Dharwad or Hubli.
Started at 7.00 AM from my cousin's place at Nerul and took the Mumbai - Pune expressway. There was congestion of trucks till Lonavala. After that it was smooth till Pune. Stopped outside Pune for a breakfast of home made idlies, packed for us by our considerate cousin.

Pune - Satara - Kolgapur stretch is a scenic drive, especially the picturesque Khambatki Ghat road. It offers some stunning visuals of the Sahyadri mountain range. Once you cross Satara, acres of sugar cane fields greet you all the way to Kolhapur.

Rocks cut to make mountain passes

Trucks overloaded with Sugar Canes

The white flowers on top of sugar canes reminded me of வான் பூங்கரும்பு in Kurunthokai poem number 149. I stopped the car and asked her to take a photo. Then I told her about the poem and that I knew of sugar cane flowering only after reading the poem. She sheepishly replied that she thought of asking me whether I am sure it is sugar cane because she has never seen flowering of sugar cane. Perils of being a city bred kid.

Flowering Sugar Cane near Kolhapur

Poor modesty! it has suffered along with us for long; but now, like the sandy embankment of flowering cane swept away by the flood smashing against it, it has borne as much as it can and deserted me as passion smashes against it.

அளிதோ தானே-நாணே நம்மொடு
நனி நீடு உழந்தன்று மன்னே; இனியே,
வான் பூங் கரும்பின் ஓங்கு மணற் சிறு சிறை
தீம் புனல் நெரிதர வீந்து உக்காஅங்கு,
தாங்கும் அளவைத் தாங்கி,
காமம் நெரிதரக் கைந் நில்லாதே.

From Kolhapur we crossed into Karnataka. While crossing Belgaum, we stopped to take a photo of the new Suvarna Vidan Soudha (State legislature building) built by the Karnataka government. It is a majestic building standing atop a hill. The Karnataka government conducts one assembly session a year in Belgaum and hence constructed this massive building.

Majestic Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, Belgaum

We passed through Dharwad town, bought their famous Pedas and took the State Highway 73 to Hubli. The state highway is under construction and that 22 km drive took us nearly 40 minutes. We decided to stop in Hubli (now officially called Hubbali) and chose a hotel opposite the Unkal Lake.

Unkal lake, spread over 200 acres, was built over 100 years ago. It offers a spectacular sunset view. We made it just in time for the sunset. After clicking a few photos and drinking in the serene beauty of the sunset, we went on a walk in the park adjoining the lake. The various nooks and corners of the park were occupied by love birds of Hubli. Not wanting to disturb the youngsters, we went back to the Hotel.
Total distance traveled so far: 5060 kilometers.
Sunset over Unkal lake, Hubbali

Day 14:

Started from Hubli at 8.30 AM and drove via NH 48 to Bengaluru. Took a quick detour at Davanagere to taste their renowned Benne Dosa. It is definitely worth taking a break just to taste this delicacy. The thick dosa dripping with butter, with spicy chutney and mashed potato as accompaniments is heavenly. The smell of butter lingers in your fingers for hours after the meal.

Benne Dosa (Butter Dosa)

Reached Bengaluru at 4.00 PM after a frustrating 10 minute congestion at the Yeshwantpur railway bridge. Or as Bengaluru people say, with less traffic than usual.
Total distance traveled so far: 5481 Kilometers.

Day 15:
Started from Bengaluru at 5.30 AM to beat the early morning traffic. Drove into Tamilnadu after two weeks. Lot has happened in the state. We lost a Chief Minister. Chennai city was battered by a cyclone. We missed it all.
Reached home by 11.30 AM.

That's the end of our trip. We had a great time, and hope you all didn't mind the spamming for the past two weeks.

A good vehicle, great companion and a bit of craziness is what you need to go on a road trip. I had them all :-). Special thanks to my parents who took care of our kids for the past two weeks. And to our kids for letting us take time off.

5827 kms. At 16.5 kmpl. Done.

Total distance traveled : 5827 kilometers.

QUIT Day 12

Today’s plan was to go from Ahmedabad to Mumbai with no stop overs. After the cyclone havoc in Chennai, we wanted to get home as early as possible.

To save time we had cup noodles as breakfast before starting. Started at 7.00 AM from Ahmedabad. Zipped through NE1 and reached Baroda by 8.30 AM. After that it was chasing trucks in NH 48. There are just too many trucks in this route.
While crossing Ankleshwar, we were hit with the stench of Industrial pollution. It took us only 10 minutes or so to cross the city, but those 10 minutes were horrible. It is for a reason that Ankleshwar is considered the most polluted town in India.

We crossed Surat at 11.00 AM and decided to stop for lunch after we crossed from Gujarat into Maharashtra. A week of vegetarian food was more than enough for her. After crossing the border RTO check post one of the first restaurants was a Parsi da Dhabba. She had tears of joy in her eyes.

Vegetarian, if you insist

I didn’t realize that she had missed her chicken dish so much. She even misread Chickoo milkshake as chicken milkshake. After a hearty lunch of Chicken curry with rice for her and Roti with Paneer tikka masala for me, we proceeded to my cousin’s place.

Versova creek bridge before Thane is under maintenance, so they stop traffic for 20 minutes one way and the next 20 minutes the other way. We were stuck in that traffic for 20 minutes at 3.00 PM. She had an appointment to meet her friend at 6.00 PM but since we had enough cushion, she wasn’t worried much.

When our turn came to move, I missed the left turn to Thane and proceeded straight. We had to take a U turn after a kilometer and came back to the turning. Now they had stopped traffic on this side of the road and we had to wait for another 20 minutes. There was a sudden frostiness in the car, and it wasn’t due to the air conditioning.
We finally reached my cousin’s place at Nerul by 5.00 PM.

Total distance traveled so far : 4502 kilometers

QUIT Day 11

Today’s original plan was to check out of tent city, visit the handicrafts village at Bhujodi and then take a break at Bhuj and start our return journey tomorrow.

The two night package at tent city includes a visit to see the sunrise over the Rann. But we had booked only for one night, so had to be satisfied with clicking photos in the tent city itself. The city is full of bright colors – right from the entrance to the dining hall to the golf carts used for transport. And everyone is extremely courteous and helpful.
In Gujarati gear

Breakfast was again a Vegetarian or Jain affair. With a live Thepla counter. Gujarati breakfast must be very sumptuous for those who like it. Not for me though. After a bite of Dhokla I settled with Upma and Vadai.

We checked out of the tent city at 9.30 AM and went straight to Bhujodi, the handicrafts village, 8 kms beyond Bhuj. The drive from tent city to Bhuj by NH 341 was regularly interrupted by groups of buffaloes. NH 341 must be one of the desolate roads to drive on, with acres of dry arid land on both sides of the road with not a hint of greenery. The temperature hit 35 degrees by 10.00 AM. If this is the condition in winter, wonder how it must be in Summer.

Bhujodi is a major textile center of Kutch, famous for its textile handicrafts. The entire village is dotted with shops selling hand embroidered textiles and other craft items. We first visited Hiralaxmi memorial Craft Park set up by Ashapura group of companies. It had shops displaying handicrafts from different areas of Gujarat. The items on display included leather goods, cloth bags, knives and lots of textiles. After buying a few items she decided that the variety on offer was not that great.

Note about the craft park

Pigeon house

Shopping bags

A model of Indian Parliament

Colorful bags
Then we went to a shop in the village which had huge stock of textiles, behind its non-descript entrance. She felt happy. And so did I, since they were one of the few shops that accepted cards. After shopping to her heart’s content we left the shop. As her friend said, she single handedly increased the GDP of Gujarat in the last few days.

Since we had finished earlier than expected, decided to press on to Ahmedabad instead of staying back at Bhuj. We took the NH 42 – NH 41 – NH 27 – NH 947 route to Ahmedabad. This route was shorter than the Morbi- Rajkot route and was easy to drive since all the trucks were headed towards Morbi. We reached Ahmedabad at 7.00 PM navigating through peak hour traffic which is a bane of every Indian city.

Total distance traveled so far : 3967 kilometers.

QUIT Day 10

Today’s plan was to visit Rann Utsav. This was the second major objective of our tour. Rann Utsav is promoted by Gujarat Tourism in a big way. Water generally recedes for four months (November – February) making the Salt marshes (Rann) visible. Gujarat Tourism organizes a festival in these 4 months tent city at Dhordo, 80 km from Bhuj, at the entrance of the Rann.

Map showing Rann of Kutch, Pic from wikipedia

We drove from Bhuj to Dhordo by NH 341. It is a 2 lane NH without any median. Dry barren land stretches on both sides as far as eye can see. Thorny bushes and shrubs are the only greenery. And lots of buffaloes. So many buffaloes cross the road that the NHAI has put up boards with buffalo symbol, warning the drivers of these bovine road users.

The entire stretch was dotted with Rann Utsav banners welcoming tourists. Advance booking is needed for Rann Utsav tent city stay. We had booked for a one night stay. The organization by Gujarat tourism was highly professional. From collection of baggage at the entrance to checking into the tent was a seamless experience. We were provided with food coupons on the way.

The tent city was agog with tourists. They have Premium, AC and Economy tents. We of course had booked in the cheapest – the Economy tent. After all the purpose is the visit to the Rann and not the stay, right? It was a comfortable tent with twin beds and an attached bathroom. A pedestal fan kept the tent cool.

Tent City at Night

Our tent
 We were taken by bus to the Rann (5 km away from the tent city) and then in a camel cart for the last kilometer. It is a completely new experience to walk on the salt marsh. You can walk only a few hundred meters before the marsh starts getting really soggy and dangerous. The guides stop you well before that.

Our ride to the Rann

Walking on the Rann

Musicians arranged by the tourism board played Gujarati dance music to which the adventurous people danced on the marsh. As for me, I can’t dance even if my life depended on it. We waited to see the sunset on the marsh and then were taken back to the tent city.

Sunset at the Rann
They had a craft bazaar in the tent city with shops selling Gujarati handicrafts. It was highly attractive, but only a few shops accepted cards or e-payment. The only ATM in the tent city was shuttered down. Like any resort worth its name, the tent city also had many photo op spots for the tourists.
Craft Bazaar

Colourful footwear
Lunch, dinner and next day's breakfast are part of the package. All meals had two options. Vegetarian or Jain food. There was a cultural program after dinner and dancing went on till 1 AM. A blocked nose and middle agedness meant that I went to sleep right after dinner at 8.30 PM.

It is a well organized program, but somehow I felt it was a little too perfect. I can’t explain it exactly. It is like the difference between driving in a highway and a village road. The highway is perfect, no pot holes, everything is as it should be. On the other hand a village road has many surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant, that make it more thrilling.

 Total Distance so far : 3557 kilometers.