After a year of daring, fortitude, and more coffees than we can count, the GLA Adventure finally heads home…
Early mornings are the best time of the day to shoot, unfortunately – I’m not really a morning person! It’s perhaps perfect retribution that most mornings on the GLA Adventure were early ones. I can’t really complain though, as some have been jotted down in memory as the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen – such as the time we woke up to a beautiful sunrise in gorgeous Mandalay.
Sirish was headed back to India after picking up a serious flu. I, on the other hand, was still looking forward to our few remaining days on the road. The bodies demanded rest after many long days on the road, but the first ray of light in Mandalay had such a calming effect that we couldn’t wait for what lay ahead.
After gorgeous views at Bagan, it was difficult to imagine that anything could top that. Though Mandalay couldn’t match Bagan’s grandeur, it came pretty close and was one of the major highlights of our trip through the country. The views of the Irrawaddy basin from the temple-based observatory at Mandalay Hill are spectacular – with a 360-degree panorama of the city, it looks like a painting on the wall. While you can see the hustle-bustle of the city, you can also see the river cutting through it, as well the old royal palace walls and moats splattered with rice fields. It gets better at the old U-Bien bridge, built in 1850 and spanning a length of 1.2 kilometres, which is claimed to be the oldest and longest Teakwood bridge in the world. The blue waters of the lake reflect a clear, blue sky and the lake and the bridge paint a perfect picture. For a better view of the bridge, many tourists paddle out in traditional wooden boats – something that could well be worth doing.
A Gurudwara in Myanmar
It was a hot and humid day. Once done shooting, I was really looking forward to the pleasant air-conditioned interiors of the GLA. Inching towards India, we headed to our next destination – an important trading town, Monywa. Our reason, though, to visit was less commerce and more religion. We intended to visit one of the few Gurudwaras left in Myanmar. Established towards the end of the 19th century by the British Indian Army, the Gurudwara still functions because of the small Sikh community that inhabits the town. However, while conversing with the families there, and the priest, it was clear that the disconnect with India has lead the youth to become disenchanted with religion. They are more focussed on their careers and ensuring a secure future rather than the preaching of a priest. This intense conversation made me hungry – fortunately, we were just in time for langar. And good Indian food was just what I needed at that time.
From one religion on the cusp of disappearance in Burma, we headed towards the Bodhi Tathuang on the outskirts of town. Famous for its massive Buddha statue – at a height of 129 metres – it claims to be the second largest in the world. Over one thousand Buddha statues are set up in a garden that has an eerily calm to it. Tathuang is a completely different place altogether though. It varies from amazement to bewilderment, to a sense of eeriness as many lifelike statues surround you.
A fortunate delay
After a good night’s rest, we were now on the final stretch of our journey. Before reaching the border at Moreh, we couldn’t help but stop to take in the last of the gorgeous views. Stop-and-stare became part of the rulebook! The India-Myanmar friendship highway, though it wasn’t the widest of roads, was pretty memorable – if nothing else for its complete lack of traffic and its untouched surroundings. It was time for us to snap back to reality though, as crossing the border to India was hit by a roadblock. We were supposed to cross over from Moreh and drive straight to Imphal, where we had planned to spend the night. But, as we got closer to the border, we received information that Imphal and the surrounding areas were under a 24-hour curfew, and that entry into the Capital was not possible. After many phone calls, head-scratching and much deliberation, it was decided that our departure back home would have to wait one more day. For most of us, though, this wasn’t bad news at all – as it had been a long journey and a day’s rest wouldn’t be so bad. So, after helping ourselves to a hearty North Indian meal – eating rice cooked in different ways for all three meals in a day for nearly three weeks does make one miss home food – all of us hit the sack.
The next morning, we awoke to an overcast sky – which quickly turned to a drizzle as we drove from Moreh towards Imphal. Crossing various security checks on the way – Moreh is a major point on the Golden Triangle for smuggling banned substances into India – we made a foggy descent from the mountains into Imphal Valley. We soon reached Imphal and stopped for breakfast at my childhood friend BT’s ‘Books and Coffee’ café. We then made our way to the airport, where we bid farewell to the two faithful steeds and headed home.
In my two legs of the GLA Adventure – across Europe and South East Asia – I covered 18,000 kilometres on a journey that left me with experiences that I’ll cherish forever. Despite driving through Europe, Myanmar was the highlight of my trip. Living life on the road, while it may come with backaches, sore muscles and tired eyes, also brings with it new friends, a fresh appetite for life and a thrill for the road.
A Grand Arrival
On Saturday, the 13th of August 2016, the GLA Adventure received a homecoming the likes of which we could scarcely have imagined. Almost a year before, on the 26th of August 2015, we drove these cars out of the cargo terminal at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, and have been on a whirlwind tour ever since – taking in sights through the windshield of this duo that have ranged from the Saharan sand dunes to the skyscrapers of New York, and Nicaraguan volcanoes to Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches. And yet, the grandest spectacle of all was waiting for us when we got home – Rashtrapati Bhavan! President Pranab Mukherjee was kind enough to share his home with us for the better part of a Saturday, and what a day it was. The surprising thing, though, is that he’s equally welcoming to the ordinary citizen and visiting tourist. You simply have to log onto the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, and register through an online booking system. It works – as the people seated next to us during the changing of the guard ceremony will attest to. After a beautiful ceremony of perfectly orchestrated marching, riding and throat clearing, we headed to the Presidents garage to ogle at his collection of armoured Mercs.
Of course, the presidential garage was impressive – but nothing compares with the actual presidential palace. Mr Venu Rajamony, Press Secretary to the President, was kind enough to give Siddharth and I a tour through the hallowed halls of this breath-taking structure. Oh, if these walls could talk the stories they would tell! The most spectacular sight, though, was Ashoka Hall – once ballroom to the Viceroys, and now used to impress visiting Heads of State. The roof has a central painting that depicts the Persian ruler, Fateh Ali Shah, hunting with his 22 sons. On all sides are murals painted by Indian artists. It’s simply spectacular, as was our entire visit to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Thanks to the GLA Adventure, we’ve been fortunate to have travelled the world. Travel is everything they say it is. It’s certainly what Mark Twain says it is, “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Ordinary people are the same everywhere – extraordinary and kind. A border is just a line in the sand. You don’t need a map to see that, just an open mind.