“No. Nope. No. Not that one. No, sorry. Not that one either. No.” The frustration on the Renault service exec’s face upon hearing this was plain to see. He’d expended a good deal of time and effort curating a concise list of ‘essential’ spare parts we’d need to carry on this trip, and, one item at a time, we were tearing it down. I mean, sure, worst-case scenario, we might encounter a boulder field somewhere in rural China, but still, I doubt we’ll need a spare oil sump, right? The truth is, with just two cars, up to six people and their luggage, and an additional set of tyres (for each car), we’re already tight on space, and while we do need to carry spare parts for our spanking new Renault Kwid 1.0 (and the Duster AWD that will be its bodyguard), we need to keep it to the barest of minimums. It’s a long drive and, well, we’d like to do it comfortably.
The next morning, India Gate is awash with visitors; it’s the weekend, so it’s only natural. The soldiers that guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are as surprised as the passersby to see a car (a private vehicle no less) parked at the famous monument. Cameras are trained on Renault India boss, Sumit Sawhney, and our own boss, Hormazd Sorabjee, as they talk about the journey we’re about to undertake – taking the Kwid from its actual home to its spiritual home. India to France, Delhi to Paris, India Gate to Arc de Triomphe – there’s a nice synchronicity to it. And, as they hop into the Kwid and pull out into the churn that is our Capital’s traffic, that’s it, we are underway.
A few hours later, somewhere on the Yamuna Expressway, where we’ve stopped for a paratha breakfast, a group of bikers dismount from their fleet of pristine Triumphs to inspect our two-car-strong convoy. Maybe it was the Kwid’s uncommon white-on-black colour scheme (those wheel covers make all the difference), maybe it was the massive Thule storage box atop the Duster, but more than likely, it was the decals – Ceat Tyres and Autocar India, and the contrasting tricolours of India and France.
The pristine vastness of the Yamuna Expressway means a huge chunk of our first day’s travel is over in a flash. Yes, we get some traffic as we enter Varanasi, our first halt, but all things considered, we make light work of the first 800-odd kilometres. That can’t be said of the next 800km, all the way to Siliguri in West Bengal. We knew it would be a bit of a task, but we didn’t account for the town of Gaya. Narrow lanes, unruly drivers and a rather roundabout route meant we spent two hours there! Worse still, as we push through Bihar, the highway deteriorates into a series of craters and slows our movement to a snail’s pace. So, at close to midnight with about 160km still left for Siliguri, we throw in the towel. The tiny town of Katihar is dead to the world at this hour, of course, but we find a place to stay and call it a night.
THE NEAR EAST
The sleepy town of Katihar? Turns out it isn’t all that sleepy. The hazy morning light revealed that our hotel is smack in the middle of the world’s busiest vegetable market. The pair of Renaults criss-cross through stray carts and piles of produce, crawling toward the merciful release of the National Highway. We’re driving to Guwahati today, and that means our much-anticipated foray into the North East of India.
The road into Assam, however, is incredibly frustrating, and no, I don’t mean the countless police checkpoints that will make you trace out your family tree because your car is registered in another state. It’s because you have kilometre upon kilometre of pristine four-lane highway that’s frequently interrupted by immense craters, and when we say immense, we mean as much as a 2ft drop in elevation. It’s a good thing we have a pair of crossovers with us, because boy, is this hard work. Every brief stretch of smooth tarmac is a short-lived revelation.
Rough road transportation has come a long way since the good old days, and we’re all the happier for it.
Guwahati’s main road is as comforting as a warm hug after a long day at the office; it’s smooth, familiar and bustling. There’s nothing we want more than our hotel rooms right now, but first things first, time to drop the cars off for one final check at the Renault service centre before we venture off into the unknown.
The next morning, a late start for a short drive. We pick up the cars, grab a deliciously messy fried Chinese meal at a local restaurant, and find ourselves on one of the nicest ghat roads in the country, getting out of Guwahati. It doesn’t last though, and soon we’re reduced to a miserable trudge even slower than the day before. Pockets of Dimapur – our night stop in Nagaland – are still alive as we drive in close to 9pm, including, rather eerily, a funfair.
Dimapur to Imphal is the shortest leg of our journey in India – perhaps of this entire trip – at just around 200km. Yet, somehow, it turns out to be the longest. The road is the worst we’ve seen yet; an unending barrage of hellish craters, blinding dust and idiotic oncoming traffic with permanent high beams for good measure. It’s taken its toll as we crawl, incredibly fatigued, into Imphal – our last stop in India.
The morning starts like every other before it; there’s no sense that we’re about to take our first momentous step on this journey – crossing our first international border. We load up the Kwid’s large boot with all the luggage we can, squeeze what remains into the Duster, and then load ourselves in for the ride. Then we check all fluid levels in the car, note down the odometer reading and time of departure, and finally the temperature. It’s a lazy, hazy crawl out of Imphal on some gorgeous but narrow farm roads, leading into the mountains and onward to Moreh, the Indian side of the border. It’s not all bliss and grandeur though – two major army checkpoints mean we have to queue up for a kilometre to register the cars with the border forces. On top of that, the roads are in terrible shape, it hasn’t stopped raining, and now we’re concerned it might be dark by the time we finish with all the formalities on both sides of the borders.
Each time we visit, it’s just as fascinating. The India-Myanmar border is no more than a single-lane metal bridge.
In the midst of all of this, you might think that the Kwid – a car that’s only 18-months old – might be something of an alien sight up here at the very fringes of the country. Sure, it still manages to get heads turning, but it’s actually quite a familiar sight. In fact, that’s been the biggest surprise on our India leg of this journey – just how many Kwids there are out on the streets. It’s no surprise seeing them in New Delhi and other big cities, but there’s plenty of them in smaller towns too, and more often than not, decked out in a good variety of accessories.
You’ll have been through Customs and Immigration at an airport, right? Well, doing it at a land border is nothing like that. The ‘Immigration Office’ at Moreh is a small cane shed with a humungous rooster sitting on the desk. We knock at the door of a nearby house to summon the officer, and he greets us cheerfully and asks for our papers; it’s all a very friendly and personal experience. The Customs office is about a kilometre up the road, where things go by in a similarly jovial manner. If only airports were like this. Since we are driving two cars across the border, they too have to be declared, even coming with their own ‘passports’ called carnets.
The actual border between India and Myanmar is no more than a narrow, unassuming, single-lane, wood-paved bridge that goes over a river – the Friendship Road. The real cool bit is you get onto the bridge driving on the left-hand-side of the road, but you get off it on the right. Our ‘Make in India’ Kwid rolls onto foreign soil for the first time, greeted by our enthusiastic Myanmari tour guides, dressed in their traditional finest. Immigration and Customs here goes by in a flash, and soon we’re in truly uncharted territory. This is where the journey begins in earnest.
FEELING THE BURM’
The road to our night stop in Gangaw is dark and treacherous. It’s narrow, mucky and layered with all manner of potholes. If we’re to make good time, we have to be on our toes to keep up a steady and heady pace. It’s a good thing the Kwid has a generous 180mm between its belly and the road. It means that even if we do get caught out by a massive crater, there’s enough clearance to keep us safe.
The next day, the Kwid’s big wiper is working overtime to keep the windscreen spotless, because it’s raining sheets and it doesn’t look like it’s letting up anytime soon. We’re hearing stories from the locals about several landslides along our route, as well as the river breaking its banks and overflowing in a few places. To say a whiff of trepidation had tinged the air would be putting it mildly. On several of the roads that we traverse, water is starting to build up on the sides, sometimes even with a little current of its own.
If you though our potholes were bad, you should visit Myanmar, which had the roughest roads on this trip.
The drive from the night before was quite a blur, but today, I’m truly learning what it’s like
to drive a right-hand-drive car on the right side of the road. It’s all well and good when you’re just following traffic; the real challenge comes when you want to overtake, especially a large vehicle. Myanmari roads are narrow, and to overtake something, you have to veer out carefully from behind it, make sure nothing’s coming towards you, and then gun it – you really need a co-driver to be a spotter. In the compact Kwid, however, seeing past a car in front of you is a lot easier. What’s more, the locals don’t seem very fond of using their indicators, so you have to constantly check your mirrors to see if someone is coming by.
The foul weather continues, and as we go from mountain to mountain, we manage to cross the mucky remnants of three landslides with surprisingly little stress, and even a small stream. But as we’re nearing the city of Mandalay, one of our big fears comes true. A part of the Irawaddy river has overflown, causing a rather rapid current, about a foot and a half deep and 30 feet wide, over the highway. We send the Duster ahead to plot the course, but a man on a moped squeezes past us just as we’re about to enter the deluge. Two feet in and he gets knocked over, but luckily, there’s a team of emergency workers there to set him right and guide him down. We take a deep breath and set off in the Kwid, smoothly and steadily. The water is now lapping up to the passenger side window, but there’s no drama, no fuss, as we cross over to the other side. It may weigh just around 900kg loaded up, but the Kwid is one tough cookie.
MYANMAR: INDIA EXTENDED
Our hotel in Pyin Oo Lwin is unlike any other we’ve stayed at yet. Our rooms are large cabins with high ceilings, and wooden floors and walls. The reception and dining area is a large old British cottage, the walls are adorned with grainy old post-war photos, and breakfast is eggs made to order. It’s no wonder, because it used to be a British outpost, and we’re told, possibly even used by (whisper it) MI5, the secret service.
It makes me realise just how much our two countries have in common. Apart from being home to the British for a long time, people here also like to chew ‘paan’, the weather is quite similar, and men even wear something quite similar to a ‘lungi’. Even the landscape, the flora, the food and the roads are very similar. What’s more, as a treat, our guides took us to an ‘Indian’ restaurant for lunch, which served us its own version of chicken biryani – not quite the same as the real thing, but really good in its own right.
The drive to our last stop in Myanmar – Lashio – is a relatively short 214km, so we’re taking it easy, stopping to shoot the Kwid against some of the stunning backdrops in this gorgeous country. After stopping at an unbelievably ornate stupa with a gold dome and intricate mirror mosaic work, we also join some locals for a quick game of Chinlone or cane futsal, the national sport. This is rural country, so they’re not quite sure what to make of the Kwid, but parked alongside the Duster, the family resemblance is clear even to them.
Every stupa in Myanmar is grander than the last, and this one, with its gold domes and mirrormosaic interiors was definitely worth a visit.
We pull into Lashio after dark. The locals are all out on the street even though it’s late, celebrating, eating street food and generally making merry as we weave the tiny, nimble Kwid around them. And just like that, we’ve finished crossing a whole country, albeit one so familiar if you’re Indian. Our Indo-French envoys are truly on an international mission now. Tomorrow, the border, and China.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
It’s a long drive from Lashio to the Chinese border, and we want to be presentable when we cross over into a new country – and by ‘we’, I mean the cars. But, alas, the road is layered in muck and the intermittent downpour isn’t helping. I’d like to nurse the Kwid over these sections, but we have to keep up a certain pace too, so I’m just hoping the 155-section Ceats don’t kick up too much dirt. After a point though, the roads open up and just gunning it up the hills is too good an opportunity to pass up. Some wide corners with a loose surface even have me reaching for the handbrake, but no, we must be responsible on this diplomatic journey.
The rubbish weather and messy road surface follow us all the way to the border. There’s a gate ahead, and through it, an imposing oriental archway looms in the distance, and past that we see dozens of people and fancy cars milling about. Is that China? Turns out it is. Our boots splash down into the mush as we gather our paperwork and make our way into Immigration and Customs. No shacks here, but a proper set of offices, and officers. We feel like kings, driving our two cars through the aforementioned archway, met by curious glances from both officials and travellers alike.
What happens on the other side is a revelation. The little Renault’s tyres go from wet mud to perfectly set tarmac as it rolls through the grand archway. The beaten-up old lorries and cobbled-together sedans have given way to the very latest luxury SUVs and trendy electric scooters. We haven’t crossed countries, we’ve crossed through time. The generational jump is somewhat balanced out by the fact that our social media abilities instantly disappear – no more Google, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. We do, at least, still have WhatsApp to stay in touch.
The grandeur of the Myanmar-China border gate is a sign of things to come.
The little Kwid is dwarfed by the enormity of the city of Ruili. As a border town, it must show off China’s finest to those who enter. The buildings are vast and grand, adorned fastidiously with neon signage, the roads are wide and well labelled, and there’s even a good amount of gardens and shrubs. We’re used to big cities of course, but after 10 days of rural India and Myanmar, even we have to recalibrate our brains a little bit.
The other thing that’s new in China is the rules and regulations. First, we all have to make temporary drivers’ licenses – our international driving permits won’t do. Same goes for the cars, which have to get temporary registration for China – a laminated number plate that we place on the dashboard. Then there’s the constant surveillance – cameras are everywhere, snapping away at you as you drive by; you think you’ve broken the law even when you haven’t. Even buying mobile phone SIM cards requires all the information in your passport. Welcome to China!