Tag Archives: Killer roads

A roadtrip into the Naxal heartland- Bastar

There were many iterations in the initial plan and the destination was changed multiple times, but my family and I finally decided to visit and explore Bastar. Holistically, Bastar is a region spread across multiple states and was primarily ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. But with changing administrations and new state formations, the Bastar region is now split into seven districts in the state of Chhattisgarh with Bastar itself being the name of a district. The region is one of the richest in India in terms of tribal culture and reserves of natural resources. Taking Covid safety precautions into consideration, we decided to drive our own vehicle instead of taking a flight or public transportation to avoid coming in touch with random people.

When people in our immediate acquaintance got to know about our choice of destination, a few thought that we were crazy. And then, a few concluded that we had lost it when we told them that we were doing a road trip right through the red-corridor area. But it was a combination of inquisitiveness, curiosity, adventure and assurance of safety from a local friend that finally got my family and myself on a road trip to what is infamously called the Naxal heartland- Bastar. To add a little bit of spark to this wild road trip, was our new ‘Flame-red’ colored car that was delivered to us just a couple of days ago. We did not have a number plate on it and were going to cross five state borders with a ‘Temporary Registration’ sticker.

With all that background, let us discuss the crux of every traveler’s doubt- Is Bastar safe for travelers?

First things first, about Bastar-

  • The public transportation or connectivity in the Bastar region is almost non-existent. So, if you are a budget traveler or a backpacker, then this trip will not work out for you. Hire a self-drive vehicle either from Raipur or Vishakhapatnam (The nearest major cities with airports) or get one from home.
  • For stay at this point in time, there are ‘zero’ places listed on Airbnb. Limited hotels are available only at Jagadalpur which you can make your center point of travel. Alternatively, there are some resorts run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) scattered in good locations across the region that you can manage to find online or through local contacts.
Entering Sukma, forest area begins

The Details of our visit to Bastar.

We started this trip from Hyderabad on the morning of Christmas-2020. As our journey proceeded from the plains towards the forests, the changing terrain was an indication that the red-color (of the red-corridor map) was getting more significant. We strictly adhered to two conditions laid by our friend/ local guide who was based out of Bastar. One, to stay connected from the time we started from Hyderabad and update him frequently (based on the mobile network). Two, do not drive after sunset. We had planned the entire route and our halts in consultation with him. With Kothagudem, we had officially entered the ancient ‘Dandakaranya forest’ region, the modern ‘Naxal heartland’. Only difference is Ravana had kidnapped Sita from the region back then, one could possibly be kidnapped or shot at by a Maoist in modern day. The day’s drive was mostly un-exciting with a good wide National highway passing through Sal tree forests alternating with cotton fields till Badrachalam, where we stayed for that night.

The following day, when we took a deviation towards Konta at Chatti junction is when we started to notice the actual change in terrain and demography. Civilizations suddenly disappeared and the roads became emptier. For most stretch it was just us, driving either through thick forested areas or large open grasslands. No man-made concrete structures, whatsoever. Even if it felt like we reached a tribal settlement after driving for a few kilometers, the settlement was limited to just one or two huts with their set of cattle and poultry. It was a little eerie to think of, but that did not stop us from halting our car and taking a few photographs.

A cattle shed in a village around Konta

After reaching Konta (The Andhra-Chhattisgarh state border) is when we started to sense the heavy air around us. Every village that came thereafter was spread across 1 to 2 kilometers along the highway. And every village had a CRPF camp with an armored MPV (Mine Protected Vehicle) at their gates, ready to be driven out at any given point. All camps had hero stones erected near the gates with names of the martyrs from the respective camps who had died during service. We were heading towards Sukma, possibly the brightest red spot one would find on the map. With extremely unreliable mobile connectivity to reach out to our guide, we had started to reconsider if we had made the right decision to take the road less travelled! Anyway, there was no way we could undo our plans since we were already there now. Instead, we decided to go ahead by thinking about the adventure and excitement that may come ahead to us.

Meanwhile, I got a message delivered on my phone from our guide. It had the contact name and number of a volunteer (Person X) based out of Sukma. We were told to meet Person X and have a cup of tea with him at Sukma before continuing our journey towards Jagadalpur. After reaching the Sukma bus stand, we called Person X and waited for him to arrive. In a bit, a young boy came to us on a bike and asked us to follow him. Even before we could complete our words of enquiring his name, he said: “Haan, haan, follow my bike” and we trailed him through narrow residential lanes to a big mansion. Another man (Person Y) welcomed us warmly and we were kind of overwhelmed and at the same time, wondering whom and why we had to meet someone in Sukma.

Person Y asked us, “Weren’t you supposed to be a big group of people?”

“No, it was just our family travelling”, we clarified.

“But Person Z told me that five of you will be arriving here for the meeting”, he said.

“Person Z? But we were supposed to meet Person X!”, we told him with a perplexed look on our faces.

We realized that there was some confusion. We were at a wrong place… in Sukma! I immediately called up Person X and told him about the situation. I then handed over my phone to Person Y and we were fortunate that both X & Y knew each other. Both of them were local leaders and represented the same political party. X came to Y’s house and it followed with some chai served to us. Our basic introduction and conversation were limited to local politics, our journey so far and our trip to Chhattisgarh. About half an hour later and as discussed with our guide from Bastar, we decided to continue our journey further.

A short while later, when we were ascending the Ghats, a bunch of CRPF men who were on their random patrol stopped us and enquired the details of our trip. Without much drama, they let us go after knowing that we were random tourists, heading to Jagadalpur from Bangalore.

Somewhere near Konta

Our guide arrived at Dorba with his family and escorted our car for the rest of the day. We reached Jagadalpur for the night’s stay. Over the next few days of our stay in Chhattisgarh, we explored several settlements and hamlets located in areas where no roads exist. Through our extensive drive through vast expanses of paddy fields and coal, iron and other mineral rich mountainous and forest terrain, we got a better sense of geography and geo-politics of the area.

So, come to the point! Was it safe?

I would like to explain this with multiple incidents and my viewpoints. PLEASE NOTE that these opinions are purely based on my personal experience. This may differ for each person visiting there.

  1. As per our guide, our visit to the local’s house in Sukma was to acquaint us with a localite in that region so that, if we were being tracked by someone, they would know that we were harmless tourists and not associated with any other intention. But my viewpoint is that, apart from Sukma, we explored the districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Gariaband and Dhamtari during the course of our stay in this region. All considered to be core areas of Naxalism/ LWE in the state. We drove our number less car with a ‘KA-TR’ sticker all around –> Not a single day did anyone stop us, ask us or threaten us. It felt like we were travelling in any other Hindi speaking place in India.
  2. When we entered the villages, we had a local person accompanying us almost always. We were told that a lot of villagers worked as informants to the Naxals. (starting from children as young as 8-10 years to grown adults, across gender). So, if a localite familiar in a particular village that we were visiting accompanied us, we would be safe –> My viewpoint on this is, when we moved to the interior parts, the villagers could speak only the local dialects of either Halbi or Gondi. Why that, when we visited the Gotul on one of the days, I even understood a portion of a conversation between two villagers standing next to me. They were discussing that I was a foreigner, who had come there to see their dance. Like really? I look so INDIAN in color, features, dress and in every other sense. Even then, the exposure of these tribals to the world outside their villages is so limited that any visitor would look alien. In such a scenario, communication would’ve been a task for us if we wanted to understand their culture better. A translator helped us to bridge the gap in communication.
  3. We were told that the Naxalites come out after sunset and bother the villagers for rice and other needs. We had heard of stories of how people/visitors/ guests were kidnapped from houses at night. We met so many villagers from various tribes, visited their houses and ate their food. They were excited to host us and shy to talk to urbanites. Never at any point did I feel like we were going to be harmed. We even stayed for a night at Dantewada and most other nights at Kondagaon. The villagers didn’t seem to talk about anything to me like kidnap or murder.
  4. There are several tribal communities that are still primitive in their culture and do not come out in contact of normal civilization. Barter still exists in this part of the world. Permits are required for entry of many villages, especially for those visiting the Abujmadh area. To think of, it is unfortunate that inspite of conscious efforts by governments to empower the tribes, it is still falling short.
  5. Somewhere near Kanker, we were by ourselves on a night journey towards Raipur. While we were told that the highways were safe, there is one point where we were asked to stop and wait for about 2 hours. With us, there were hundreds of other vehicles also who had stopped and spent the hours getting a nap during the waiting time. Daily, the ITBP policemen do combing in this area. Inspite of several positive experiences like those above, things like these present the intensity of the underlying danger and threat.

By having all these presumptions, it cannot be ruled out that naxalism is REAL. And it is in abundance in these areas. The underlying thought cannot be ignored that I must have gotten lucky!

Bastar district, Chattisgarh

My verdict on safety for travelers:

I went to Chhattisgarh and returned safe. Every place across the WORLD has its own threat, but in different ways. When you are in Rome, be a Roman. So, whichever place you choose to travel, keep the local customs and sentiments in mind. If possible, get in touch with a localite and take them into confidence. Travel to build connections and build connections to travel.

Travel, stay safe and enjoy your journey!

Silicon city to Magnetic fields- Part 1

So, as the title suggests.. this is about my journey between Bangalore and Alsisar, in the winter of 2019. It is not another bike riding blog that you’d find spamming the internet. This one is a story.. About “HOW” I got there, when reaching the destination was the target. But as things unfolded, I’m writing this today to share my story with you all..

The background:

One day, while scrolling down on my Instagram feed, I come across a post seeking volunteers for the magnetic fields music festival. A festival I have been following for a few years. Given this chance, I filled in the questionnaire on the given link. A few weeks went past and I had eventually forgotten about it… To be noted: I was unemployed or rather occupied with agriculture, until this point..

So in the month of November, 17th to be precise- I applied for a job as a sales consultant at a luxury bike dealership in Bangalore and got employed also. Trust me, this was the easiest aptitude I have ever answered! The test was held in the dealership itself, which had a good playlist playing in the background as I was taking my test. It was more like: I enjoyed my time giving the test.. So, I sailed through that and got employed also. Well, everything was alright but not right.. I was employed at the place for exactly 8 days. Exactly a day before my birthday. The Best birthday gift ever, that was it: I got an employment termination. I was let go because I was not enthusiastic enough. Yeah, right! 100% agreed, I don’t give a damn either.

Post this scene, I’m cycling back home.. Well, that’s when I get a call. It’s a person calling to seek more information about me and my application for volunteering. She called to ask me if was interested and if they could hold a video interview. Oh, well! Why not? All done and now I’m in, as a volunteer…

They call again exactly 7 days before the event, to reconfirm my participation. Done, set I am; Atleast for the event. Not set with how to reach the event… Well I spoke to my parents and tried to get money for my journey tickets. They probably thought I was joking and did not  bother to respond. I did this till the last buffer day for me to leave home to reach the festival venue on time. Even on the last day, I’ve asked but no avail. Well, I’m not good at convincing I guess. I did my mental calculations and came to a decision that given the pace and ticket availability- train was ruled out and plane was fast but extra expensive, considering last minute booking. So, I decided to ride to Rajasthan.. In 2 days flat! Well yeah, I did ride 2200 kms.. in a little more than 48 hours, though.

Today:

I leave home after realizing that it was futile, trying to convince my parents to agree for plane tickets. I packed essentials like one thermals, one pullover, shoes, 3 pairs of clothes and not much cash. I’m full rich you know, only cards.!No one at home is happy about my last minute plans to ride 2000 odd kms with absolute no planning. Most important thing I did was stick my name and emergency contacts written on a paper on my fuel tank, just in case something went off route. Okay, tata, bye bye to home.. For the next 10 days.I leave home at around 4.00.p.m. straight to the service centre. Oil changed, chain lubed and tensioned, all while listening to the workshop supervisor telling me to replace the chain kit and tyres, as both had exceeded their life. Yes, I know they needed a replacement but I didn’t have enough time. Okay, I agreed to his advice telling him that I’ll do it in Pune. My bike was ready, atleast for the night until I reached Pune, just a few hundred kilometres away..05:15.p.m., I start my lonely ride to reach Alsisar as early as possible so as to not miss the reporting, day after tomorrow. So now, I’ve left home just before night fall and I have 2000kms to ride. I stop for dinner at a roadside hotel at about 10.00.p.m., the only hotel that seemed to be brightly lit. There was not a single tea shop the whole time. This first night is nothing much interesting except for continuous  riding all night, till I eventually got tired at about 02.a.m. I was finally tired, enough for a major pit stop in the middle of nowhere. Also, I had underestimated how cold it might be.. Standing cold and riding cold are very different levels of cold.! Had to wear my thermal and my pullover to feel, just warm enough that night. I eventually stopped at a truck lay-by, which are more common than hotels after passing Hubli. This place seemed good enough to stop because there was a bright mast light installed nearby and there was nothing else other than this small bus-stop like truck lay-by. I was tired, so I just decided to lay down on the broken benches.

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Getting a power nap at one of the truck lay-bys

My bad, this place sucked! Because, every now and then these sugarcane farmers went by in tractors, blasting music at that dead hours. And also because it is a national highway, every truck and bus whizzed past the shelter making my rest-stop unbearable. I vacated the place in 20mins to find a place that was more silent. I ride for the next hour, till I finally reach Kolhapur tollgate. Being dead tired and partially sleep deprived, I give up riding.. It is probably 3:30-04.00.a.m. Being at a considerably more safer place with constant security, I just pass out on my bike, at the tollgate! I did wake up eventually, feeling just a bit fresh at about 5.00.a.m.Time is running out and I’ve not covered half the distance. Oh shit, I’ll get late. I almost immediately leave. Sometime into the morning ride, I am greeted by a fellow rider on an older red Ducati while he gracefully overtook.By day break, I’m almost in Pune. At 6:30-07.00.a.m., I’m at Khatraj Ghat, full of fog. Well, I ride into Pune and miss the exit I should have taken to enter the city from Swargate. Instead, I happened to take the ring road which bypassed the city and took me through Hinjewadi and Pimpri. Here is when the first balls in my mouth scene happened… I just happened to go past Tata motors at Pimpri and stopped for my morning tea as it is almost 8.00.a.m. now.. I don’t know if it was the tea stop or some inauspicious time of the day; My bike chain seemed to have gotten jammed and was making a very uncomfortable metallic rubbing noise. At this point, I was barely able to ride it.. I got off the bike and started to push it, because the nearest service centre at Chakan was just a few kms away.. Even pushing became difficult as the chain had jammed or become tight. I gave it a thought, then hopped on and rode. It was nerve wracking to listen to the chain rubbing against some other unfigured part… I prayed the whole trip from Pimpri to Chakan, just that the chain doesn’t snap.

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Somewhere in Pune

For my good fortune, the chain repaired itself I guess and everything became normal again, just as I neared the service centre. Guess what? I’ve arrived too early to the store. It’s 9.00.a.m and the service opens at 10.00. Good that the showroom guy had just opened. He was cleaning and setting up the store. I tell him to inform me when the service supervisor arrives and pass out on the showroom table, till almost 11.00. Eventually, he did come. This service centre guy gave me the best attention I’ve got. I told him the problem. He however, was not able to verify it because the chain had magically fixed itself. I got it lubed and tensioned again. Trust me, the chain and tyres had become overused by now. I tell him my destination and he was surprised. He also repeated the same, what I had heard in Bangalore. “Change your chain set and tyres, or you’re not going to make it back to Bangalore..!” I give him my assent to do it in Jaipur.

To be continued……. Part 2

Riding on the sapphire valley- Paddar

It was post sunset, a meagre road carved out of the sapphire hills with about 75deg. gradient, no aid of streetlights and just the growling sound of the flowing Chenab down the deep valley to keep company. We had absolutely no idea of what the surrounding looked like and we had started our ride with only a rough visualization of the dangerous geography based on what we had heard the people say before we left Kishtwar. We thugged the cliff with our concentration impounded to just the meter wide area lit up by the single headlamp, being cautious of the biker leading and an eye on the rear mirrors to ensure the one behind is on safe track, avoiding hundreds of potholes and still falling into few more, crossing several waterfalls that cut our roads, landslides, missing narrow encounters with the cattle that stayed overnight by the narrow roads, freezing temperature and all those things adding to the ruggedness of the terrain, we had finally reached Gulabgarh at 09.00.p.m. The thought of inching every mile still gives me goosebumps. While the makeshift army tents at the Gulabgarh stadium hosted the men of this entourage, the women participants were given a comfortable hotel room for the two nights that were scheduled to be spent there. After a nice meal cooked at the army camp, all the riders crashed for it was going to be a long day to follow.

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Waterfall crossing enroute to Sansari

After a hard night at the camp with pounding rain and thunderstorm all night, a new dawn brought with it the most anticipated part of the trip… Everyone was up early while the distant peaks were still being painted by early snowfall of the season. The camp site looked beautiful with green and white peaks surrounding 360deg. After a quick breakfast and farm fresh apples being served, all the riders assembled in the stadium for the flag-off. The amassment of so many machines in the middle of the mountains was one hell of a sight to watch and the wham from the exhausts sounded like medley to the ears. And then, by dispersing in a disciplined single line, the ride to one of the dangerous roads in the world through Gulabgarh-Sansari-Killar along the Paddar valley was kick-started… literally!!

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The winding roads of Paddar valley

Thanks to the BRO- Border Roads Organisation, there is at least a rudimentary path for transportation here that connects people in the valley. It is impossible to picture how life would have been for these settlements (villages with as less as 2 houses) that are nestled in the remotest corners/cliffs of these mountains. And the basic healthcare and trade is unimaginable to think over when even this road is cut-off in the winters due to snowfall! With a neat asphalted tarmac ending after a 3 km stretch, the challenge ahead unfolded stage by stage. The road got narrow just enough for one vehicle to pass at a time and we were cornered at several junctures to make way for the 4-wheelers that ferry people across this highway connecting the states of J&K and Himachal Pradesh. The innumerable waterfalls cascading on to the road, slush puddles, stone laid roads were the easiest stretches that we rode on. As the ride progressed, we had the mighty cliffhangers to keep our excitement hanging onto. It became less of a road and more of a trek route to ride on with absolutely nothing apart from a worn out pathway… Further ahead, laid a road that descended and ascended with very steep gradients coupled with blind curves. After riding through the outrageous cliffhangers, foot bridges across rivers, meandering forests and unexplainably beautiful vistas of the valley, we arrived at the Gannaur or Sansari bridge at the confluence of river Chandrabagha and Sansari nallah- the last point of Jammu & Kashmir on this treacherous road at sunset time. There is a police check post at this point for those wishing to cross the state border towards Himachal Pradesh. There-on, the valley will be called as Pangi valley.

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One of the steep roads before approaching Sansari bridge

The sun had started to set which meant there was no time to waste and we had to head back to our camps ASAP. We had to cover as much as possible of this treacherous route while there was still decent visibility. The familiarity of the terrain helped us catch some speed and stability for our return ride to Gulabgarh. What took us about 4-5 hours on the onward ride to Sansari was done in less than 3hours on the return. We had ripped the roads and made it back to our camp just at twilight! That was one hell of a ride I tell you… Quite literally!

This trip was part of our ‘Peace ride’, sponsored by Jammu tourism as a part of the Himalayan expedition to promote tourism in the lesser explored places of Jammu. The route we covered over the week was Jammu-Mansar-Basholi–Sarthal–Baderwah-Kishtwar-Gulabgarh-Sansari-Gulabgarh-Patnitop-Udhampur-Jammu.

A biking expedition in the Himalayas

When my name was included in the list, I had a bag of mixed feelings. I was glad to have got an all sponsored trip to one of the least explored parts of the country. But at the same time, I had my apprehensions about being a part of an organized trip. I was excited to travel on one of the deadliest roads in the world and then the fear of being a misfit as a pillion among what was supposed to be a biking event with professional riders from across the country kept flashing frequent thoughts of pulling-out of the event! And finally the evening arrived, where we had to start our journey towards Jammu Tawi- The start-point of all the action filled seven-memorable days of my life!!!

No one knew the other fellow rider at the start, but during the course of time- each one ensured they stopped, waited and helped the next one in times of need. Reaching the destination on time did not matter to anyone; they would halt and wait when the rider behind went out of sight in the rear view mirrors. Whether it was running to lift up a rider who slipped on the slush pool or to push one up the steep valley roads when the machine refused to move… whether it was picking up a fallen silencer of a rider who has gone way ahead without noticing or going back to get tools from the back-up vehicle to fix a broken bike.. Whether it was escorting a rider whose headlamps and brakes had given way while riding at night on the treacherous Paddar Valley or towing a halted biker all the way on a militant infested highway… And then, on the last day when I had a miraculous escape from death while trying to avoid overriding on a biker who slipped off-his-course, the entire battalion of riders had stopped by to check on my sprained leg! No fights, no misunderstandings, no quarrels- It ain’t a common thing while you are traveling with a group of over 80 riders from across India who were all strangers. But, they were all united and stood by each other at every turn (literally!!) of life during these 7 days…

Doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, were all just educational qualifications. While some made it after a nasty tiff with their bosses, yet a few had quit jobs to do this trip. While some rode to satiate their hunger for travel, some rode to earn livelihood for their towns through promotion of tourism. While some came to make few quick bucks with their photos and videos, yet a few came to love the mountains… Yet, a few rode to spread the good word of beautiful landscapes, safety to travelers and cultural wealth of their hometown which otherwise is perceived with horror and poverty. Every rider had a purpose to travel and a story to tell that’s associated with this trip. Irrespective of the geographical, cultural and educational differences- Travelling was the common religion and riding was the only God… No one big, no one small. No one to judge who you are… For a person that I am who otherwise likes to go slow, walk and take in things and places at my own pace- riding only meant whizzing past things with speed… What I realized during these 7 days is that there lies a whole new perspective to life out there- Biking binds people like brothers… Cheers to all the wonderful friends I made here, who helped me to create truck loads of wonderful memories that I can cherish for several years to come…

The route we covered over the week was Jammu-Mansar-BasholiSarthalBaderwah-Kishtwar-Gulabgarh-Sansari-Gulabgarh-Patnitop-Udhampur-Jammu. It was a complete package with picturesque landscapes accompanied with art, history, culture, religion, natural resources, adventure, offbeat traveling. It had something for every kind of traveler. I strongly recommend this trip for every person who wants to travel but do not like going to the commercialized and overly crowded places that are so done and dusted. This stretch is a must-do once in a lifetime thing!

I will be posting details of each day and each place that I visited in separate posts in days to come. Do subscribe and get updates 🙂

This trip was a part of ‘The Peace ride’ to explore the lesser known places in Jammu and was sponsored by Jammu tourism.