Here was palpable tension in the air; 120 people getting into 30 cars. Crowds were thronging and pushing at barricades because the locals wanted a glimpse of the top three film stars and a very popular radio jockey from Bangladesh who were also a part of this journey. In another corner, a Myanmarese film actress was talking excitedly into a camera about the adventure soon to begin. Others from Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives were excitedly packing things into their cars, smiling and introducing themselves to whoever was parked next to them. As part of the organising group, I tried to get people into their vehicles in a flurry. Suddenly, police sirens wailed, and there was a hush as the senior-most politician in Bangladesh, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, Chief Adviser, arrived to flag off the first-ever SAARC rally.
This is the story of an epic journey of over 9,000 kms across seven countries over 30 days with 120 people. And here's the thing about it—I did it without stopping at a single red light and breezing past international borders.
The SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) rally was an initiative of the government of India in association with the CII. With Autocar India being the logistic partner, I had been entrusted to help get this mammoth rally together - entailing eight months of planning, meetings and route surveys. Crossing ‘t’s and dotting ‘i’s, with so many countries’ governments involved, had all culminated with this moment. At the flag-off at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the air was ripe with anticipation and chatter amongst celebrities, media people, rally enthusiasts and officials from seven SAARC countries—Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Our mission was to spread the message of people-to-people contact and help strengthen ties between the SAARC nations by driving through them.
As the rally was flagged off, crowds of people lined the roads while we drove out to Chittagong. As we passed the lush, green paddy fields, small towns and busy cities, a never-ending chain of locals and schoolchildren waving flags and showering love on this convoy of 30 cars gave rise to the term that would often be used in this rally—human tunnel.
With people stopping to shake hands, collect and give souvenirs, the 175 km journey to Chittagong took seven hours instead of four despite an official escort car trying to pave the way and clear the crowds. While some celebrities were used to this, the rest of us were dazed and left feeling like royalty. Radios in each car kept the participants connected, and the chatter was beginning to flow. The three days in Bangladesh flew by, with the participants settling into the rhythm of the early mornings and long driving days. The convoy traversed the endless expanse of green, often broken by small towns where cycle rickshaws jostled for space with people. Cultural events were organised at every halt, and we visited Buddhist stupas, war memorials and even revisited a cavalry escort. Bangladesh had imprinted our memories with some pretty unforgettable moments.
Exiting Bangladesh was an event in itself. We had special permissions to cross over an old rail bridge with no road into India at the northern border of Bangladesh. The bridge was a sea of people waving us goodbye that we had to part—like Moses—inching our way through.
The first stop in India was a fuel station. After three days on the road, camaraderie within the teams was forming, with everyone wanting to stretch their legs and chat at every break. My job was contradictory, trying to get to places on time, so I announced that no one should get out of their cars; this would be splash-and-dash. As I got back in and gave the order to move on the radio, “Yes, Marshall,” came the response from some of the cars followed by a little laughter. With all the orders I had been dishing out, the participants had given me a nickname that has stuck till today. Most of the wonderful people I met at that rally still address me by this name.
This entry into India was just a transit to Bhutan. As the sun was softly sinking into the horizon, the convoy cut through the beautiful tea estates of north-eastern India into the forest for a one-night halt in Jalpaiguri. As we crossed into Bhutan the following day, it felt like the entire population of six million people had arrived to greet us, cheering in their Ghos and Kiras. After dancing with the locals, we set off on the climb to Thimphu. The weather was excellent, and as we climbed higher, the temperature kept dropping. We arrived in Thimphu at sunset—at a very chilly two degrees. But the warm welcome ensured we never felt it. Bhutan is a country that will steal your heart instantly, with its gorgeous landscape, peaceful charm, hospitable people and unique traditions.
On a frosty morning, there was a warm reception and flag-off by the country’s Prime Minister Lyonpo Khandu. We set off for Dochu La, the highest pass in Bhutan with sights of rosy-cheeked schoolchildren screaming. Dochu La, just about 25 km from Thimphu, is a photographer’s delight, with the snow-capped Himalayas and the 108 chortens forming a superb backdrop. The convoy swooped down the hills after a flurry of group photos. The roads in Bhutan are an adrenaline rush for any enthusiast. With smoothly paved surfaces that snake along the hills, long switchbacks, barely any traffic, and absolutely no traffic lights, one can barrel down them. Soon we arrived at the exit town, Gelephu.
I must explain here that my friendship with the team leader of Bhutan, Karma, began in the organisational stage. When I had re-entered Bhutan a day ago, astounded by its beauty again, I had asked over the radio,“Karma, how can people buy land in Bhutan?” Pat came the reply in his deep baritone, “You have to marry a Bhutanese, Marshall. Shall I arrange for someone?” Laughter had broken across all the radios.
The Bhutanese had organised a fun night of dancing and music in Gelephu. At one point in the night, my crew pulled me out, and a line of kneeling Bhutanese men in their traditional garb smiled at me outside. I was a bit stumped. Karma said, “Okay Marshall, pick,” with a cheeky grin on his face, “This guy who controls border immigration, you will get in and out easily. That guy is from customs, he is in the police.” All of these officials had joined in to play this prank. My face reddened by now—and everyone was outside, cheering this joke on. I cannot imagine officials in any other country ever being so casual.
From Bhutan, the convoy crossed to India once again to enter Nepal. This time we drove on the east-west corridor from Assam. The road had been cleared for us with no oncoming traffic—and with the official escort car, we flew down the 200 kms, only stopping for tea at the Jaldapara sanctuary. A troupe of Totos—the region’s earliest inhabitants with only 276 surviving members—entertained us. Upon meeting them, we were reminded that we need to keep our ecology and indigenous tribes in mind when we march forward with development.
The country has 14 zones, and we passed through each of them travelling along the Mahendra Highway that passes from the eastern border to the western-most point. The landscape changed from deciduous forests and lush green fields to mountains, and winding roads brought us to Pokhara. The following day we rose to the view of the white peaks of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas and the sun kissing the top of the Machhapuchchhre mountain—or Fishtail, as it is commonly known. Later, we gave up the wheels for oars, and the participants all partook in a boat race.
From Pokhara, we drove to Kathmandu, the capital with its dusty crowded streets, where a group of Beetles escorted us through the city. The homes had pots with water and flowers placed all along the route to wish us a safe journey - a touching gesture. After a ceremonial flag-off from Basantpur, the old capital of Nepal, we
descended from the hills into the plains, following the Trishul and Narayani rivers in succession. As evening fell, we arrived at the Lumbini Sacred Garden, stopping to appreciate monuments dedicated to Lord Buddha at his birthplace.
Leaving Nepal, we zipped along the Mahendra Highway again. It was a flat straight stretch, with sag trees on either side. We crossed through wildlife sanctuaries and crossed over Asia’s largest cable-stayed bridge at that time.
We crossed over into India in the famous Kumaon region and halted for the night in Corbett. The next day, the convoy drove flat out on a 455 km run to Chandigarh.
The cross-over into Pakistan was an event that will remain etched in my memory forever. The atmosphere on the Indian side was serious, with checks and counterchecks of the people and passports counted and matched, and the cars being checked. This was the only border in this entire rally that we didn’t fly across. It had become customary for team leaders and rally officials in my car to walk across borders holding the country flags. The gates opened on our side and I was alone at the wheel, driving the first-ever car with an Indian number plate that would cross over into Pakistan since the Partition. My hands were already shaking as the gates opened to the other side. The drums were beating a joyous rhythm and rose petals flew in the air. It was historical—mine was the first car after the group walking ahead. The moment was so emotionally charged, tears were streaming down my face, my voice broke and I barely uttered a few words before breaking down. Hugs and handshakes came my way, and I rushed to gather myself before parking the rest of the cars. But as I got out and turned around, I saw the same height of emotion through the convoy. The Indian team leader and Pakistan leader were atop a car, flags crossed. Hugging each other, people were waving their country’s flags, and the feeling all around was one of years of history and tension being washed away.
Pakistani locals gave all of us a warm welcome and the evening visit to the Lahore market made us realise how close we are as people. Vendors were asking us about Bollywood stars and whether we’d met them, while feeding us chai and samosa and offering us massive discounts. It was a heartwarming experience.4
From Lahore to Islamabad, we travelled on Pakistan’s finest expressway, touching speeds beyond 120 km/hr on the vast, six-lane, autobahn-like surface crossing through the pink ‘Salt Mountains’. By this time, the Pakistani team leader, Ehtesham, had been nicknamed ‘reverse gear’. He was always running in the opposite direction to people, having forgotten things or needing something from his bag last minute. We circled back to Lahore on the Grand Trunk Road, built initially by Sher Shah Suri in the 1500s. The narrow two-lane highway was a more colourful and historical journey. We also experienced the art and history of Pakistan in the luminous monuments built out of coloured blocks of salt that one can see in Khewra salt mines and the ruins of the 2,300-year-old city of Taxila. In Pakistan, the Afghanistan team joined the convoy.
Our arrival in Delhi was one fit for a king—the congested city roads closed off for us, and traffic held aside. The chatter on the radio was about how hard we were all going to find it to get back to driving in our everyday lives without escorts or closed roads and having to stop at lights. The leaders of all the SAARC countries who had assembled for the summit waved off the rally on April 3, 2007.
The long, straight run to Mumbai gave everyone a chance to savour the experiences and wind down the adrenalin. Mumbai traffic refused to move aside, and the escort bike could not keep the convoy together. Still, great work from the security team leaders, Iqbal and Sandeep, ensured every car made it to the Gateway of India. The driving culminated with pomp and celebration.
From Mumbai, the cars were shipped on a naval vessel to Sri Lanka, where we drove the country’s length—from capital Colombo to the seaside of Galle and onto the tea estates of Nuwara Eliya before returning back to Colombo. Special aartis at the temple, chanting session at a Buddhist stupa, and a visit to a mosque—all in one place—at Lanka’s most cosmopolitan religious site, Katargama, was unique, as were the picturesque waterfalls and botanical gardens. Sadly, beautiful Lanka was where the driving officially ended, and most participants bid goodbye to one another. The last gala dinner was filled with recollections of great moments, exchanging numbers, hugs and tearful goodbyes.
Only a select few participants headed to the Maldives for a ceremonial end, with the small island accommodating only a few. One hundred and twenty strangers had become like family over the last thirty days, sharing experiences they would carry forever. This epic journey is the one I keep going back to in my head.