The Ousted Autocrats Tour took place from Feb 4-Feb 18, 2012. The tour is named for the 3 ousted autocrats in the locations we planned to visit. 1. Kathmandu: Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, ousted in 2008. 2. Dharamsala: XIV Dalai Lama, ousted in 1959. 3. Lo Manthang: Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, ousted in 2008.
The 30 second cheesy teaser video can be seen here:
A full length (7 min) video can be seen here:
Like any good tour we had custom t-shirts made:
My wife and I’s vehicle of choice was a 2004 Mitsubishi Montero Sport nicknamed "The Bullpen" outfitted with custom front, rear, and side protection courtesy of Independent4X, rear ARB locker, rear OME heavy duty springs, ARB torsion bars, and 255/85R16 BFG KM2's. We used a Garmin Nuvi 2595 GPS.
It took a lot of planning and organizing, but on the morning of February 4th we were finally ready to leave our house in Kathmandu and set off on the tour. This was to be a 16 day trip. 4 days driving from Kathmandu to Dharamsala. 2 days in Dharamsala. Then 6 days to drive to Lo Manthang, 1 day in Lo Manthang, and finally 3 days to drive back to Kathmandu. We estimated it would be about 2,000 miles total. The plan included driving over some incredibly dangerous roads, including extreme off-road track heading up to Lo Manthang, the capital city of what until 2008 was the kingdom of Lo, which lies in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal – a unique place politically part of Nepal but geographically and culturally on the Tibetan plateau. (To see a great Aljazeera special about Upper Mustang click here)
The Drive from Kathmandu to Dharamsala:
Here we are fresh, happy, and ready to hit the road!
Day 1 was a simple 5 hour drive from Kathmandu to a city named Butwal. It was on roads we have driven before and nothing particularly interesting happened.
Day 2 was a longer 9 hour drive heading straight west on Nepal's scenic and peaceful East-West Highway, ending in the border town of Mahendranagar. The day started with our first fill-up outside of Kathmandu. This started a trend that would last throughout the trip - paying for more fuel than we were receiving. This particular attendant came up with the story that the pump meter did not record the first liter that was pumped into our tank (stopping after pumping a few liters in to explain the situation). The amount of money - about $1.50 - didn't really matter to me, but the fact that there would never be any repercussions for his actions was upsetting. After a brief discussion and a growing crowd I agreed to pay for one more liter than what the meter showed. The attendant then happily filled the tank the rest of the way.
Traffic on the East-West Highway...
On the third day we planned to cross the border into India. In retrospect it was a bad idea to attempt a border crossing on the longest scheduled driving day (an estimated 10.5 hours). Given my status, border crossings - especially remote border crossings such as this - can raise eyebrows with local authorities. That was certainly the case here. Details aside, the crossing sucked 4 hours out of our day and we didn’t start driving again until 1pm. That put us way behind schedule. That also meant we would be driving at night in India, which was something we really wanted to avoid. Because of the extended night driving, it ended up taking 12 hours total and we didn't arrive in Chandigarh, India until 1 am.
The border itself is actually this one lane bridge over a small creek:
And now we're in India:
As the sun set the driving went from dangerous to downright absurd.
Vehicles are supposed to drive on the left in India. It becomes immediately obvious, however, that people prefer to drive on the right and will do so at every opportunity. Heck, even if there isn't an opportunity. At night this becomes especially dangerous as all vehicles use their high-beams all the time. It is a never-ending game of chicken and to top it off everyone is blinded from the high beams. This can be particularly stressful on your passenger if you are driving a LHD vehicle…
Departing from Chandigarh at 9am, we set off on our GPS-created route to Dharamsala. Having just driven on some of the most rutted, pot-holed, and twisty roads I had ever encountered late at night while enduring constant death threats from buses, tractors, and cars I decided to change our route preference from “most direct” to “fastest.” The GPS decided to put us on what looked on paper to be a major highway heading northwest, connecting to another that went back straight east to Dharamsala. As we drove we started noticing more and more Sikhs. Then at some point we realized we were in the Punjab. Then the looks we were getting whenever we stopped at an intersection changed from friendly and inquisitive to more accusatory, suspicious, and glaring. After reaching Dharamsala I analyzed our route and found that we had in fact been less than 20 miles from the Pakistan border. Twisty roads suddenly didn’t look so bad. We decided we would be taking the direct route back to Chandigarh in a few days.
In the Punjab we stopped at yet another petrol pump whose operators were less than truthful. Normally, as you can see here, the petrol pump fills up the tanks of motorcycles. In other words, the type of people who can tell when a liter charged is a liter received. After putting 19 liters in our tank the attendant stopped pumping, opened up the pump, flipped a switch, and then continued to pump another 50 or so liters (according to the meter) explaining that he had to reset a circuit breaker. More likely, the switch changed (just slightly) the ratio of petrol pumped to petrol charged. Again, the difference was probably only very slight, a few liters at most, but the audacity of the attendant to do it right in front of my face ticked me off. But again, there was really no option; we paid and were on our way.
Our first view of Dharamsala, shortly after sunset:
For the next two days we had a wonderful time in Dharamsala. We ate amazing Tibetan food and visited the various sights. It even snowed one night, which made for a beautiful morning.
The Drive from Dharamsala to Lo Manthang:
On the day we departed Desmond Tutu was scheduled to give a speech. But the Ousted Autocrats tour waits for no one, and we pushed on – back to Chandigarh (after thanking the monks that let us use the monastery parking lot as our own). I correctly assumed that the extremely poor quality of the roads on the direct route would counteract the shorter overall distance.
On this drive we encountered our one and only tunnel on the entire trip:
Thankfully it was not actually that steep...
This was not an uncommon sight on the twisty mountain roads:
Another normal sight:
After being upgraded to the Presidential Suite at a 5 star hotel in Chandigarh and spending a relaxing night in luxury, we admittedly lingered longer than we should have. Hitting the road at 10am we immediately understood that we would again be driving at night in India. Soon it became painfully apparent that this would rank as the worst day of the tour. The drive from Chandigarh to the Indian border town of Pilibhit took a painful 13 hours.
Now, we live in Nepal. We are forever surrounded by poverty and all that other less-developed country stuff. But to kick off this drive were two beggar children who were extremely aggressive. Usually beggars will bang on the door / window and yell demanding money. But these two actually climbed up on to our rocksliders and began banging as hard as they could while screaming for money. Taking out the camera and snapping a pic confused them long enough for us to make our escape, but jeez, talk about aggressive!
Aftermath of the beggar children:
Now, I should mention, that for the most part the Bullpen received rave reviews everywhere we went. People from all walks of life were interested in the truck and were asking what it was. The best explanation I found was "just like a Pajero." to which the response would be "oooh, a Mitsubishi, nice. Where from?" These school boys in a Tuk Tuk outside of Delhi were particularly enamored. They were a bright spot on an otherwise hellish drive.
Throughout the drive there were train crossings. And we never just passed over a crossing. Instead we were forced to stop at every. single. one. The first clue that we were approaching a train crossing was a line of trucks and tractors about 1/2 mile long all with their engines off lined up in a very uncharacteristic queue. The natural thing for the smaller cars to do, since there wasn’t any oncoming traffic, was to pass the line of trucks, stopping only when they reached the closed crossing. Therefore, at the crossing there would be four lanes of traffic all facing the same direction. Of course the vehicles on the other side had done the exact same thing and without fail every time the gates were opened after the train passed by there was nothing to do. This situation epitomized what we saw as the selfish short-sightedness of the driving culture in India. It was all so unnecessary. Everyone was stuck until one person from one side forced a path through oncoming traffic and then a tiny trickle of traffic began to flow. We always aimed to be at the front of that trickle, but it wasn’t easy. Later in the night, due to a navigational error on my part, we ended up inside a triangle of tracks and became trapped. We crossed one set of tracks and entered the triangle. Upon reaching the opposite side the gate was down. There was a wall on one side and tracks with no crossing on the other. So we turned around and headed back to the crossing we had just come from. But a train was approaching, so we stopped. Then the train stopped – directly in front of the crossing. We sat there for 20 minutes completely stuck until the train started moving again.
This night was also our scariest. We had four intense near-death experiences. I am, of course, not counting the “normal” ones where we were routinely run completely off the road by oncoming traffic, nearly miss rear-ending a tractor with no lights, or any of the other myriad ways one might die on an Indian highway at night. No, these were special. One in particular stands out. As we were driving down the pitch-black two lane highway out from behind a pitch-black tractor (no head lights) appears a vehicle with it’s high beams on coming directly towards us in our lane. I honk the horn and slam on the brakes. At this point I am still thinking this is a “normal” event. As the car swerves back to the correct side of the road just before impact we then see the headlights of the car just behind the first. Our tires are screeching, ABS is activated and there is nothing we can do but hold on while we look into the light…The second car again swerves just before impact to reveal a THIRD CAR who missed us by centimeters as it swerved back as we came to a screeching halt.
We were running low on gas. It was after dark. We had 4 jerry cans (80 Liters) in the back, but really preferred not to tap into those unless absolutely necessary. We were also out of Indian Rupees. The goal was to find a Petrol pump that accepted credit cards…or at least find an ATM. We stopped at every petrol pump for the next hour. Some even had signs that said “ATM” or “Credit card facility available” but the attendants responded with “cash only” and only vague “up the road” directions to where a some mythical ATM may exist. The low fuel light glowing strong and bright we finally spotted an ATM on the side of the road. We got enough cash for one more fill-up in India and headed to the next petrol pump. Now, I should mention that we spent a lot of time pulling in to all these pumps and driving slowly trying to spot an ATM near other businesses. I mention this because the pump we pulled into had a working ATM and accepted credit cards at the pump. It was really not our night.
After 13 hours on the road we finally reached Pilibhit. The hotel was dirty. I mean, really dirty. My wife and I have stayed in some pretty disgusting places over the years, but this place really took the cake. We took no shower, no breakfast, and had no direct contact with the hotel sheets. As soon as the sun rose we planned to head straight for the border…