(Editor's note: Laurent Granier, 30, of Le Mans, France, and Philippe Lansac, also 30, who hails from Tours, departed Paris in June 2000 for a drive around the world, much of it off-pavement, in a mildly modified Renault Scenic RX4. After more than four years and 22,000 miles, they are still at it, currently navigating their way through Central and South America. This installment recounts their experiences driving across the Indian subcontinent; in future issues, we'll catch up to them in Indonesia, Australia, and other far-off venues.)
We plunge into the anarchy of Indian traffic, as rickshaws, bikes, lorries, and buses packed with people jostle for room on the bumpy tracks. Our average speed never gets above 25 mph. We are heading for Allahabad, 500 miles east of Delhi, to witness Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering on the banks of the Ganges that this year was to attract more than 70 million pilgrims and visitors.
A cinematic epic comes to life: This is the first image that springs to mind as, from the huge bridge that spans the Ganges, we contemplate the seething mass of human bodies that stretches as far as the eye can see. A sea of tents has been put up along the river banks, and even on the river bed itself, which the pilgrims cross by means of giant floating bridges. More than 70 million people have gathered for this religious festival, held once every 12 years. They have all come to take a purifying bath in the Sangam, where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, and where the Hindu gods let a drop of the nectar of immortality fall.
Driving in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka is not for the faint-hearted nor the speed maniac: The routes of India, especially, have to be the worst we have encountered thus far in our journey, with potholes the size of craters, and traffic that travels at a snail's pace. And the rules of the road here are not size-friendly-the smaller you are, the faster you need to move out of the way! To travel the main routes between Delhi and Benares or Delhi and Bombay, we are advised to drive at night-the traffic is far less congested, though pedestrians, broken headlights on other cars, animals, and of course the potholes are all much harder to see. Tire repair is almost nonexistent out of the main cities. To combat this, we end up using tubes in our tubeless tires-the easiest to fix when off pavement. Fuel, though easily found, is a bit dodgy. Using a nylon stocking to filter it is a daily routine.
Off the main thoroughfares, there are plenty of four-wheeling options. Almost every road that is not leading to a main town is dirt or gravel! In the Thar Desert-encompassing the eastern portion of Pakistan and the Indian state of Rajasthan-sandy tracks lead to small villages of brightly painted mud houses. Heading into the Himalayas towards Ladakh, the tracks lay precipitously on the edge of the mountains. Holes that can engulf tires are a constant concern, and we frequently bottom out, the hard earth hitting our protective skidplate. Encountering snow too deep to pass, we turn around and headed towards the Terai region in Nepal.
* Recently renamed Kolkata, its greater urban area is home to 14 million people, making it the 15th largest in the world.
* It is named after the Hindu deity Kali, the goddess of destruction. She is typically depicted holding a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other.
* Within Calcutta's city limits are suburbs named Budge Budge and Bum Bum.
We head for a region of Nepal of which little is known: Terai, at the foot of the mountains near the southeastern border of the country. The road leading to Gauriganj ends suddenly, in front of an uncrossable old wooden bridge, which collapsed four years ago during the monsoon season. There is no road on the other bank, just a dirt track. A few bicycles are trying to force their way through the deep troughs left by the heavy rains. Rather than turn back, we steer our 4x4 through fordable stretches, past tottering bridges and riverbeds that have been transformed into sand deserts.
In the middle of nowhere, the rains come-drenching, powerful torrents of water from the heavens. Overnight, the rivers rise 20 inches, reaching the bottom of our windows at water crossings. The rickety wooden bridges are now unsafe to cross, and the raging river below can easily carry a car in its currents. The mud is pure clay on our wheels. Thinking playfully that we can rinse them in the inevitable river we must cross, we pick up speed and plow through ... almost. Completely stuck between the two banks, we feel the current starting to push the car sideways. Water is slowly starting to leak inside. Looking around, Philippe spots some Nepalese men working on a nearby bridge, immediately jumps out the window (the doors are unable to be opened) and immediately loses his glasses and his wallet as he falls into the water. Soaking wet, he runs over to the 15 bemused men, begging for help to push the car out. As he returns with an army of helpers, the situation is becoming grimmer. Finally, with the help of the men-and some newly placed stones in the water to help the tires grip-we make it out. The monsoon season is nothing to play with unless you are prepared to wait it out.
After hours of toil, the Rajbansi kingdom can at last reveal its secrets. Charala is a small hut village on the banks of the Bala river. The straw roofs of the village remind one of Tahiti. There is no electricity, running water, or cars. The women all wear a piece of cloth bound about their breasts, a heavy silver necklace, and an astonishing amount of jewelry. This stylishness is surprising, considering they spend most of their time working in the fields. Their femininity is in harmony with the wild beauty of their kingdom. A piece of Polynesia, right here in Nepal. With heavy hearts, we leave this paradise of fragile virginity. The lack of navigable roads will not protect their culture much longer from the external world.
"Hasthe, Haisha!" cry Naresh and his 150 companions who, like him, are energetically pulling on the immense rope attached to the Bhailakha-a huge wooden wagon laden with a pagoda temple. The unshod feet of the people who are pulling slide on the time-polished cobblestones of this narrow Bhaktapur street.
Bhaktapur is a splendid medieval town and was the capital of Nepal until Kathmandu asserted its domination. Eighteen-year-old Naresh, whose hands are riddled with blisters, is still smiling despite his exertions. Because today, April 14 by the Gregorian calendar, we celebrate Bisket Jatra-the Nepalese New Year's Day. The third eye of Shiva, which is painted on each of the wagon's four enormous wooden wheels, pivots slowly and jerks in as the men pull. The whole mobile temple, which looks more like a Buddhist pagoda than a Hindu temple, owing to its multi-leveled roof, creaks each time it moves. The procession reaches Tamahodi Tol Square as night is falling. The team pulling the wagon finally reaches the dark silhouette of the Nyatapola temple-the largest in the country. It is 100 feet high and has a roof made up of five levels. The Nepalese Year 2058 can now begin.
Nepal doesn't seem to want to let us leave. A nationwide strike organized by militant Maoists holds us up for three days. In another tiny distant village, we have to travel to buy food. Laurent volunteers to go, but when he hops in the Scenic, she refuses to turn over. The antitheft system of the car, controlled by the ECU, is locked. Poring over our manual in search for the answer, we surmise that the ECU is dead, the humidity and water of the rains too much for it to handle. Contacting Renault in Paris, we arrange to have a new one sent by DHL-no small feat.
The journey to Kathmandu starts by bicycle to the next village 13 miles away. Then Laurent hitches a ride by tractor to a place where he can catch a pickup to a larger village, from whence he can take a minibus into Kathmandu.
To make matters worse, Laurent has been suffering from ticks that have laid eggs, creating an irresistible urge to scratch, which only inflames and makes the urge stronger. The journey to Kathmandu is two-fold: pick up the ECU and find a doctor. Two days later, Laurent disembarks from the minibus in the capital city, now in serious agony. In normal situations, his behavior would have garnered disgusted looks from passersby.
Only today is different: The normally tranquil streets of Kathmandu are filled with people hysterical and crying in pain. CNN reports the King and seven members of the royal family are dead, and the son of the King, who committed these crimes, shot himself after the act. Rumors abound that Maoist rebels have had a hand in this to trigger a coup d'etat. Confusion rules. Men have shaved their heads in a sign of mourning, martial law is declared, the military marches through the streets, bands of journalists roam around looking for the latest scoop, and students conduct demonstrations.
In the middle of this, Laurent is after one thing: the ECU. Walking to the airport (no public transport exists), he finally reaches the customs office. But as it turns out, import taxes amount to 150 percent of the amount, and our carnet de passage (visa) is required. This was left, foolishly, in the Scenic, and contact must be made with Philippe to get a faxed copy. How is this possible in a village with no phone? Thank heavens for the Internet!
Philippe, concerned with what was happening (it has been seven days since he and Laurent made contact), makes his way to the nearest village where there are computers. The carnet de passage is faxed, the ECU released, and yes, the minuscule ticks deadened by powder easily bought in any pharmacy. After 11 days, the ECU is finally with the car. Renault walks us through the process by phone, and the ECU is installed. Laurent eagerly takes the keys and tries to rev her up. No go. Previous attempts to start the car daily had taken its toll. The engine is flooded.
After three hours' on-the-job training in electronics, the Scenic is off. We finally leave Nepal and return to India via Western Bengal. As we climb towards Darjeeling, the cool wind blowing across mountainsides covered with tea fields makes us quickly forget the unbearable scorching heat of the Terai. On the road we bump into the Toy Train that puffs and pants its way up to an altitude of just over 6,300 feet.
* Nepal's population is 25 million people. It has 12 radio stations, six Internet service providers, and one broadcast TV station.
* It is one of the poorest countries in the world; per capita income is approximately $250 U.S. per year.
* Of the world's 14 mountains that exceed 26,000 feet above sea level, eight are in Nepal, including Mt. Everest.
* Textiles and leather goods comprise more than 80 percent of Nepal's exports.
It's just an amazing feeling coming into Calcutta-the city of Mother Teresa and of the poet Tagore. We wind our way through the sea of cars, rickshaws, and pedestrians. Amongst these, one thing in particular takes us aback-the hand-drawn rickshaws. How can these men find the strength to pull a cart with two or three people in it? This is in contrast to the India of fast economic growth, where there are brand-new cars in the street.
After four days of hell on the bumpy old roads of Orissa, a magical sight suddenly appears from behind the hill-the Indian Ocean. At Visakhaptnam we discover that the Indians, too, like to go to the beach for their holidays. Hundreds of beautiful villas and blocks of flats have been newly built along the coast. And with all the film posters that cover the walls of the town, you'd think you were at the Cannes Film Festival. Surrounded by this surreal decor in the heart of India, it's us who are the stars. The crowd of curious onlookers is such that as we arrive at the hotel, the police have to help us out of our car.
Going still further south, we pass through Madras and stop off at Tiruchirappalli. From the top of Rock Temple, which sits on top of an enormous boulder more than 200 meters high, the view is fantastic. About 250 miles away towards the south, the land stops. Kanavakumari, the southernmost point, will see the end of our 15 degrees latitude in our 15-day trip. These are our last miles in India, this subcontinent that has so fascinated us, a nation unique in its diversity.
On the road again from Sikhim to Sri Lanka, the car fails to start one morning. We get her going again but we are terrified we might not have properly installed the ECU. Not wanting to take any chances, we make a group decision: drive non-stop to Trivandrum (in the south), over 1,800 miles without stopping. Taking turns on this shift, we only take breaks in towns where DHL exists, in case any emergency packages need to be sent. When we finally arrive to take the ferry to Sri Lanka, we have to leave the Scenic behind. We only pray she will start up again when we return.
After a month in Sri Lanka without the car, we're back in India, at Trivandrum. We turn the key of the Scenic. The sweet sound of the engine roars to life. We have not had a problem since.
* The state of Kerala has a population of 29 million people. Population density is 288 per square mile; by contrast, population density in the entire U.S. is 10 per square mile.
* While Kerala is majority (60%) Hindu, some 6 million Christians and 22 Jews also live there.
* Kerala was the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government (1975).
* More than 90 percent of the population are landowners.
Leaving the capital of the state of Kerala, we're plunged into a world of blues and greens. On our left, the Arabian Sea; on our right, the backwaters, those immense lakes and lagoons for which Kerala is renowned; below us, the floods caused by the monsoon; all around us, a sea of emerald. Forests of coconut and palm trees stretch out as far as the eye can see. Vast rice fields, a luminous green, complete the color palette. We feel as though our car has been transformed into a cruise ship.
The surrounding landscape reminds us of the Amazon rainforest, or even Venice-with cathedrals of vegetation in the place of Renaissance palaces. In the village of Allapuzha, a crowd has formed along the canals. It's the day of the "Nehru Cup," a snake-boat race which takes place on an immense lagoon. Each boat in this event holds up to 100 rowers.
Further to the north, in the former capital of the state of Goa, a Portuguese colony up until 1961, we discover dozens of cathedrals and basilicas. We almost forget that we're in India. In the historic center of Panaji, the present capital city, an elderly Portuguese-speaking lady tells us about the local traditions: "Here we don't celebrate Shiva or Ganesh, but Christmas or carnival instead!"
Three adjectives are all we need to describe our first impressions of Bombay: immense, rich, and dirty. The suburbs of this vast city seem to go on and on forever. We stop off at Chowpatty, a massive beach lined with concrete tower blocks. The British architecture surprises us here, perhaps more than in Delhi or Calcutta. Surrounded by buildings with names such as "Victoria Terminus" and "Church Gate," we could be in London. The next stage in our journey will also have a decidedly British flavor. But this time, we'll be in Southeast Asia. We're off next to Singapore.
Sold throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia, the Renault RX4 uses a 136hp 2.0L 16-valve I-4 and five-speed manual transmission. The RX4's 4WD system is similar to the "full-time variable" systems we've seen recently on vehicles such as the Honda Ridgeline and Kia Sportage. Nominally a front-wheel drive, it uses wheelspeed sensors on the front wheels and a viscous coupling device in the rear to transfer torque as needed between axle ends. Suspension is independent in front, with a four-link in the back, and ground clearance is 8.2 inches. Rolling stock is comprised of 16x6.5 rims and 215/60R16 Michelin Synchrone tires.
Very few modifications were made to the authors' RX4, for reasons of practicability and cost. Renault Sport (Renault's racing division) provided a centrifugal air cleaner, developed by Renault for its rally cars, to assist with intake chores. The suspension was beefed with heavier-duty shocks. The exhaust was rerouted higher beneath the vehicle to allow for better clearance during water crossings. Due to heat-transfer concerns, the exhaust was covered with material to isolate heat, and plates were also placed in between the tailpipe and the underbody.
Engine and vehicle protection are provided by an underbody skidplate, made by Orbisoud, and bull bars made by TCA. Front and rear grilles were installed to protect the off-road driving lights. A heavier-duty battery was installed in the engine compartment, while another was added to the rear cargo bay to help run the crew's digital camera, video, and laptop computer, which monitors engine vitals. On the roof is a large roof pod that's packed with 440 pounds' worth of parts, spares, tools, a hand winch, and cable.
(Thanks to Megan Son)