Delhi to Sri Lanka: 6,000 miles on the Indian subcontinent
(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.