Better late than never…
We spent the rest of that day enjoying some spectacularly well-earned Kingfishers, trading tales with other ‘survivors’ and watching the others roll in. One team had narrowly avoided careening off a mountain by driving into the only bush on the cliff-edge. Another lost control swerving out of a lorry’s path, flipping the rickshaw on its side and breaking a collarbone in the process. One team came back without a roof.
We finished 11th in the end – 1st place being claimed by a group of three Dutch girls who beat everyone else by a whole day. They also raised the most out of the whole group – around an admirable £20,000 if my memory serves correctly.
The next day all present teams took part in a brilliant ‘victory parade’, hurtling around the city with horns blaring and parts falling off rickshaws all over the shop. True to form several teams broke down, their vehicles having only limped over the finish line in the first place, and they were appropriately ridiculed as others passed by.
The parade ended up at the football pitch where we were to participate in a game against what I’d have to describe as the Shillong branch of the Hells Angels. Clad in leather and denim they turned up in a haze of smoke from their motorbike exhausts, and I think it’s fair to say the Rickshaw Runners were intimidated. The rain was absolutely lashing down and the pitch was reduced to a bog, which didn’t bode well for our team which was sporting an assortment of flip-flops and trainers on their feet. I decided to stay and guard the rickshaw. While I was sat in the back seat I had a visit from a AK-47 toting policeman who came and sat in the driving seat without saying a word, and a bunch of kids who almost sent us tumbling down the hill we were parked atop by releasing the handbrake.
I can’t remember the score (I think we won), but do remember a bare-footed South African scoring an absolutely belting volley from the acutest of angles.
We were to leave the next day, after the leaving party where awards were handed out for the best ‘pimped’ rickshaw, most money raised and best inury (the broken collarbone scooping this one). The Hells Angels were with us and obviously enjoyed the performance of ‘Shillong’s finest rock band’ who were on stage. In the morning we took a taxi back down the mountain to Guhawati airport, leaving Kate at the hotel, to be used by another team on the next leg of the rally (good luck). From Guhawati we flew to Calcutta and on to Dubai, where we stayed for a few nights with a friend before heading home. Quite an adventure, all in all.
We headed down to breakfast knowing (read: hoping) it would be our final meal on the road. 100 kilometers was all that lay between us and the finish line, tucked away amongst the hills of Meghalaya in the city of Shillong. The choice this morning was toast or curry. Toast seemed more appropriate at this time, so we filled our boots before setting off for this final stint.
We knew we faced a massive ascent to get up to Shillong which would be a big test for Kate, but the first 30 km or so was pretty flat and we made solid, albeit slow progress. There’s only one road between Shillong and Guhawati and naturally a lot of people who want to use it, so the traffic hindered us, but we figured as long as we kept moving at a reasonable pace we’d be able to make it in about 2 hours.
As the road began to incline this dream began to fade. Kate redeveloped her hatred of hills and her beat engine died a death at the first real slope – along with our hopes for a problem-free final day. So close yet so far! It was particularly hot today and the sun beat down on us as we contemplated our options. As usual we only had one option – to carry on – so on we rumbled, coaxing a few hundred metres out of the rickshaw between breakdowns. One short-lived plan to take some pressure off our ailing steed was for Nick and Kane to get out and run ahead for a bit (I stayed in to provide support to Mike, who was driving).This didn’t really help – the momentum lost by stopping to pick them back up again probably negated any gain made by reducing the weight – but was reasonably amusing at least.
Onwards; and thankfully the breakdowns seemed to grow further apart. The road continued to climb relentlessly though… how high was this place? The landscape started to get greener as we got closer – which made sense as Shillong is rated as one of the wettest places on earth – and we were treated to some magnificent vistas. It’s quite striking how different this area is to the rest of India. It’s even known as the ‘Scotland of the East’, although the nickname didn’t quite ring true as we couldn’t find a deep-fried Mars bar for love nor money.
Eventually we passed a sign: Shillong Welcomes Rickshaw Run Spring 2011. We’d arrived! Well, not quite. It turned out this was a bit of a teaser and there was actually about 15km further, still uphill, before we got into Shillong City itself… But after 4000km, what difference was 15km? The finish line was at a hotel near the centre, and we found it quite easily (after a couple of improptu/accidental tours of the city of course). We drove up the driveway with the horn blaring, rocking the rickshaw side to side and coming to a stop in front of the entrance. It was the end of the line: we had arrived.
Startled into consciousness by Eric Cartman’s rendition of ‘Poker Face’ blaring out from Nick’s iPhone alarm, we headed down for breakfast. On the way though, we noticed someone had put a note on Kate’s windscreen. It read:
‘The caterpillar circles the Earth twice’ - signed ‘Cloudy Glass’.
What does it mean? Another team? We puzzled over this at breakfast but got nowhere. We’d set ourselves up with a 300k drive to Guhawati today, which in turn was only 100k from Shillong tomorrow. Easy.
Of course it turned out not to be, as the roads proved to be even worse than last night. Miles of highway were apparently ‘under construction’, which seems to mean ‘still a dirt track’. There were people working, but they all seemed to be brushing dust to the side of the road or watering the plants. Just fix the potholes/craters!
Amazingly our rickshaw seemed to survive unscathed but God knows what these conditions will do to the likes of Keep Karma and Curry On, who told us yesterday they’d already had to weld their exhaust back on a million times.
Something interesting we’ve seen the last few days is that the children around here don’t get to ride on school buses like the rest of India, but ‘school cages’ – literally just a cage stuck on the back of a rickshaw or a bike. We assume they’re let out at their destination…
We arrived in Guhawati just before it got dark but spent a lot of time trying to find a hotel – everywhere said they had no room available. Maybe the fact that we looked like we’d spent the day down a mineshaft had something to do with it. We did get a place in the end and headed to the tourist lodge to investigate booking an elephant safari tomorrow morning in the nearby national park. Unfortunately it can’t be done which is a bit gutting. It means we can get to Shillong a bit earlier tomorrow though. 100 k to go!
Distance traveled – 300k
Our earliest start – up at 5.30. We really had to make Alipurduar today if we were to arrive in Shillong on Friday as planned. Still with Capri Adventures, we made good progress in the morning and made Siliguri by midday. We then wasted a bit of time sticking for a couple of hours with Capri as they tried to get their horn fixed, and then proceeding to part ways with them in the next town! They were going to spend the night in a national park while we wanted to wait until we got to Guhawati.
The scenery around here is much more green and a bit nicer than some of the states we’ve passed through. There also seems to be more animals – cows, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs, pigs, sheep; all free to roam the highways as they please. The cows and ducks seem to have a deal going on. They pair up in the fields and the duck stands in the cow’s shadow to stay out of the sun. If the cow moves, the duck follows. I’m not sure what the cow gets out of this arrangement, but the duck is laughing.
As we got closer to Alipurduar the roads started deteriorating pretty quickly and it was clear it was going to be slow going. There really are no words to describe how bad they are…especially in a rickshaw. We carried on but as it got dark we realised we were pretty hopelessly lost. We seemed to be 10k from Alipurduar for about 2 hours! It turns out we’d somehow managed to exit the highway and literally just circle the town on some hellish ring-road. Eventually though we got into a hotel, painted in more garish colours than David Seaman’s favourite goalkeeper shirt. The waiter in the restaurant had the best ‘shake your head for yes’ technique we’ve seen yet… mind blowing.
‘This is the best birthday ever’ – Mike Gays
We woke at about 7 and headed to meet the Germans and the Italians. Today is Mike’s birthday! Capri Adventures sang Happy Birthday in German, and we got on our way.
It was slow progress in the morning and we stopped at a mechanics to try and fix some niggling problems. We ended up staying here for a couple of hours, and by 1pm had only traveled about 70k!
We drove for a bit more but Capri Adventures’ rickshaw started giving up, and they couldn’t go faster than 40k. They turned off to get to a service centre they’d been tipped off about, and us and Paperoga headed for Suri. We were following them, and were treated to some maniacal Italian driving which we tried to keep up with. Potholes? What potholes!
We drove all afternoon, but at about 5 spotted the dreaded grey clouds forming ahead. We’d liberated some plastic sheets from one of the hotel car parks along the way, and set about fashioning some rain covers for the top and sides – we did ok. The Italians just had a towel.
The rain started and it threatened to be worse than the Great Storm of Gunter 3 days ago, but the covers (while not exactly water-tight) helped a bit and we seemed to miss the worst of it. We must have been pretty near the center at one point though, as we saw a crack of lightning which can’t have been more than 100m away!
Making Suri by about 7, we again stumbled upon a nice hotel – probably the best yet. Unfortunately they only had 3 rooms for all of us, so Kane shared with a couple of team Paperoga. After we’d had another amazing meal we heard that Capri Adventures were still at the mechanics! Turns out they were there for over 3 hours in the end; Before, of course, ending up at the same hotel as us (albeit sleeping in the conference room!)
Not too much distance traveled today. We still have time, but have to go some serious k’s the last couple of days.
A pretty long bland day today. Pure highway, but we have to make the most of it as the roads are going to get pretty bad, pretty quickly. We had a bit of a lie in after our late one last night. On the road at about 9 after a breakfast of toast, Kharagour was the aim for today.
The drive passed without note until about midday when we passed through what we think was the state border. Unbelievable scenes as trucks were queued up for kilometer after kilometer on both sides of the road. We have no idea why, maybe they all have to be checked before being allowed to pass through. If so, it would take about a week to clear the backlog!
We managed to bob and weave through, using both sides of the highway, and were on our way again. The afternoon went smoothly and without breakdown. We feel we’re riding our luck a bit with rickshaw problems, not having had a breakdown since day 3. Long may it continue!
We arrived at our destination before dark – first time ever – and lucked out again with our choice of hotel. The places we’ve been staying in really haven’t been too shabby, though this is not the norm going by other teams’ updates. After a nice meal we headed back up to the room with a couple of Kingfishers, just in time for the 9 o clock film. However, on the stairs we passed a guy going the other way. He looked suspiciously rickshaw-y (dirty) so we had a look in the carpark and lo and behold! 2 other tuk-tuks!
We headed to the bar and spotted their owners – Paperoga, the Italians from London, and our German friends Capri Adventures. We’d last seen them about an hour into the run on the streets of Kochi; And now, 7 days and 2500k later, we ended up in the same hotel in the same town on the same night. Unreal.
We joined them for some beers and exchanged stories. They’d been traveling together for a few days and had clocked up 450k today – hardcore! We’ll join them tomorrow morning.
There is about 1200k left and 5 1/2 days to drive it in. Game on.
Distance traveled – 320k
Apparently today is Easter Sunday. So happy Easter! Chocolate eggs in the post please.
We got up early and set off for Visakhpatnam for lunch. We’d made the decision to try and get a train to Calcutta there, as there was a big chance we wouldn’t make the finishing line in time. As we had – perhaps foolishly- booked our flights for the day after (back in Calcutta!), not making it to Shillong by the 30th could leave us stuck in India – perhaps for ever. While we could probably just about make it driving if it went well, a breakdown or two could seriously scupper us. Our thinking was a train to Calcutta – about 800k – would save us 2 days driving.
We drove the 200k to Visakhpatnam without incident, apart from seeing another team on the highway. Not sure what team they were , we lost them again shortly afterwards.
A couple of minutes after entering Visakhpatnam we saw the ‘Pizza Cafe’. Food that wasn’t curry! We went straight in and ordered. Apparently they weren’t cooking large pizzas today… regular it was then. It turned our they did taste a little like curry, but they weren’t too bad.
We headed to the train station, and after being sent back and forth a few times between the different entrances we mae it to the parcel office. Apparently we could get it on a train, but not to Calcutta. Instead we could get it to Bhubaneshwar – 400k away. We just had to be quick deciding as it left in half an hour. Bhubaneshwar would still hopefully save us a day, so we decided to go for it. This turned out to be a mostly bad decision.
There were no classes on this train – just standard. We’d been warned beforehand to try and avoid standard class at all cost as they’re packed like a sardine tin. Looking around at the other trains already at the platform this seemed to be about right… 6 hours in one of these carriages wasn’t too appealing. It was, at least, cheap, costing about 5 pounds each for us and the rickshaw. The station hands wheeled the rickshaw to the platform – the same platform as the rest of the passengers – and it’s fair to say we got some strange looks.
As the train pulled in there was a mad rush for the carriages. There were scrummages 10 deep at the doors. We decided to duck into the disabled carriage, which seemed a bit less cramped. Making our way into the corner, we quickly noticed a woman shouting at us, beckoning down to the other carriages. Mike pointed to a couple of operation scars on his leg and she seemed to nod as if to say ‘ Yep, fair enough’. We’d gotten away with it, but looking around it seemed there were quite a few others pulling the same con. Most looked perfectly fine, and one had just stuck a plaster on his face. The air stank (and almost tasted) of wee, and we began the journey sat on the floor with our bags. It did empty a bit after a few stops and we got our seats eventually, but it was a pretty boring way to spend 6 hours (probably more like 8 hours in the end).
Arriving at Bhubaneshwar shortly after Kane was chatted up by an Indian Ladyboy called Keema, the fun began as it was time to unload the rickshaw. We watched as the packers scratched their heads for 10 minutes, trying to work out how to get this tuk-tuk out of a door that definitely did not seem wide enough.
They decided to go for the lift technique and got her half out, under the supervision of a manager barking orders like a possessed army officer. As they lowered the 2nd half it turned out the doors weren’t wide enough after all, and Kate now has some seriously dented wheel arches.
A few minutes later though we were outisde the station ready to find a hotel – it was nearing midnight by now and we’d been on the go since 6. However, it turned out we weren’t actually at Bhubeaneshwar, but about 20 k away in a different town. Shattered, we were also conscious of running out of petrol as we’d had to give up our reserve jerry can before boarding the train.
It took us about an hour to find a hotel, and checking in we were charged 20 pounds for the privilege. Double what we normally pay – stung!
So 600k traveled today. A very long haul but we probably saved ourselves just under a day, so in the long run maybe just about worth it – especially the roads up around Bangladesh are as bad as they’re cracked up to be.
Aiming for Rajamundry, we were looking to cover about 330k today. Another early start, the morning started well enough… then we saw the clouds up ahead and we knew what was coming! The rain lasted for about 3 hours and succeeded in drenching us all, as well as Mike & Kane’s bags on the roof.
It was absolutely freezing and miserable, and an hour long detour in Gunter didn’t help. One wrong turn at a diversion took us into the city, and once in the lack of any signposts made leaving nigh on impossible. Stuck inside of Gunter with the India blues again. Eventually we paid a rickshaw driver to lead us out and we got on our way again. Still raining, we headed to Vijawada.
India can be like another planet. Half is familiar and half is unreal. Cars and rickshaws vie to overtake ox-driven carts on town streets. City traffic grinds to standstill as cows cross the road. Out of the towns, the picture postcard views are accompanied by locals squatting behind bushes. Mud huts are clustered in the shadows of electricity pylons taking power to the towns. These people don’t have much, but they always have a smile and a wave when we pass by in our stupid rickshaw.
By the time we reached Vijawada, soaked to the bone, we were ready to call it a day after covering just 100k. However, as we looked for a hotel it seemed to brighten up – a sign from the rickshaw gods? – and we swung Kate into a restaurant car park. We looked a mess, but the customary army of waiters didn’t seem to mind and we ate another ridiculously big meal.
A decent drive in the afternoon and we reached Rajamundry just after dark. Getting on the internet, it seems other teams aren’t too far away. Perhaps there will be another sighting tomorrow? We checked on a team who are doing the run without a map. They don’t seem to be doing too well.
Distance traveled – 330k
A long and largely uneventful day today, we made a big distance along the boring but quick highway.
We were out by 8 and drove all morning to Nellore, via the outskirts of Chennai. Chennai is the biggest city we’ve gone by so far, and it showed! The insane traffic,thick smog and a cocktail of ‘interesting’ smells – this place seemed like a veritable… hole.
In Nellore we got on the internet and perhaps had a moment of realisation of how far we still have to go. A lot of hours to drive, and not many days to get them in.
The long days in the shaw aren’t too bad. There’s more room than we expected, we were probably more cramped in Normy’s Clio on the way to the airport. It’s hot but you get a good breeze coming through due to the lack of sides, and the noise is… well yeah the noise is pretty annoying but you do get used to it.
We’ve been pushing her a little harder now she’s been broken in through the first 1000k (hit that milestone this morning), and we were averaging 50km/h plus for a few hours.
Carrying on past Nellore, we aimed for Ongole. A storm threatened but never materialised (probably because I wasn’t sat in the middle), and we encountered the first team we’ve seen since the first day! ANOTHER BLOODY TEAM! It was the Italians – team Tonerroti. They sped past us – the lightweights were only going 2 in a shaw – but did exchange high fives as they overtook.
We hit Ongole at about half 7. We saw a hotel on the outskirts and dived in. After checking in we headed straight to the restaurant for some tea. It’s fair to say we were hungry as we’d not eaten all day, but none of us could expect what was to come.
We all ordered our food, watched by the 976 waiting staff. We noticed on the menu it proclaimed that the restaurant has the ‘best margharitas in town’. Now we’ve not had a drink since the launch party, so we thought we’d treat ourselves. It wasn’t until we’d confused a few waiters that we realised the menu was actually for an Italian restaurant (in Dubai!), which this place had somehow gotten their hands on and stuck their food list inside. We prayed we wouldn’t be served four pizzas, and got stuck into the starter.
As soon as that was done, the next course came out. For some reason the waiters shared out each individual meal between the four of us – we’ve no idea why as everyone else in there was being served normally, maybe they think it’s how English people eat – and we realised this was going to be a bit of a bumper meal. As soon as we finished each course it would be replaced by the next – Lamb Rogan Josh, Chilly Chicken, Chicken Fried Rice, all supplemented with breads – we ended up eating 8 courses in about 20 minutes. It still only came to 4 pounds odd each!
It wasn’t until we were safely up in our rooms we could be sure the margharitas weren’t coming.
Distance traveled - 375k ish