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Kullu to Amritsar: A Slice of India


In the first few hours of Day 33 on Garry’s attempt to drive around the world in record time, the team was stopped five times by angry mobs of striking Indian government workers. - Garry Sowerby
In the first few hours of Day 33 on Garry’s attempt to drive around the world in record time, the team was stopped five times by angry mobs of striking Indian government workers. - Garry Sowerby - The Chronicle Herald

We had feasted on spicy curried goat, yogurt and herbal teas the night before and, although our room had a dirt floor, the beds had been clean and comfortable.

A drizzle of daybreak shining through the hotel room window ushered in Day 33 of our attempt to drive around the world in less than 77 days. Navigator Ken Langley and I, along with advance man Sandy Huntley who drove the northern India portion of the trip with us, were rested and revitalized.

Everything was set to take on Oct. 6, 1980, with a plan to head west out of Kullu Valley along the Himalayan foothills dropping into the Punjab then on to Pakistan.

We were in an upbeat mood and joked about our dream of the new Volvo 240 GTs Volvo Canada would award us for putting our Halifax-built 245 DL wagon into the Guinness Book of Records. It may have been wishful thinking, but it helped get us down the 43,000-kilometre road to the record books.

In the first few hours, we were stopped five times by striking Indian government workers who would be stoning cars competing in the Himalayan Car Rally a few weeks later. In every situation, Sandy, Ken and I managed to harness enough Nova Scotian charm to talk our way through the blockades without losing much time. The whole day was fraught with delays and close calls dodging overloaded Tata transport trucks barrelling down the narrow mountain roads.

In the afternoon a ferocious thunderstorm slowed us to a crawl. Bolt after bolt of lightning cut the bruised sky as grape-sized hailstones pummelled the car, but we continued west cutting through water up to the bottom of the door sills at times. There were no cell phones or laptop computers in the car because they didn’t exist in 1980. Neither did fax machines or GPS units. We got through India “old-school” with a road map and a sketchy guide book. Getting directions became a form of roadside fellowship with the friendly Indians.

It became obvious we wouldn’t make Pakistan, so we stopped in Amritsar, India’s holy city founded in 1579. Central to the city is the massive, marble Pool of Nectar overlooked by the Harmandir Sahib. The gilded gold and bronze covered temple, also known as the Golden Temple, is the holiest of all Sikh shrines, and one of India’s most visited sites.

Of course, we got hopelessly lost in Amritsar and missed the Golden Temple, so we hired a motorized rickshaw driver to lead us to a hotel. I loved that, following a blue-smoke spewing contraption through the chaos of life in a busy Indian city.

There was no air conditioner in the Volvo so when it was hot the windows were down. In urban areas, it felt like we were part of the gridlocked, wonderland rush hour of any Indian city. Pungent fragrances of exotic spices wafted through the car. The rattle of diesel engines and squeals of worn brakes joined the cacophony of blaring horns and incessant bartering and bantering that was street life in Amritsar. It was road trip at its absolute finest.

The rickshaw eventually pulled up to the Amritsar International Hotel. It was a modest place that, if nothing else, was dry. We asked for one room with three beds because no one wanted to sleep in a room by himself along with whatever might creep or slither through. We were shown to our room, a musty hovel with two rusty steel-framed beds shoved against a wall adorned with fresh stains I didn’t want to think about. Greasy yellow curtains dangled over a small open window looking out onto a crumbling stone wall.

The third bed was promptly wheeled in, a narrow portable affair that looked like a 19th-century operating table. Ken lost an odd-man-out rupee toss and was assigned the squeaky cot. During a sleep-deprived laughing fit, Sandy declared it the “GT bed,” and we retired. In the morning the sounds of worship and sunrise drifted into the window. I awoke realizing the GT bed was empty. Sandy eventually found Ken in a sweaty stupor stretched out in the Volvo. He had 42 bed bug bites from the pesky inhabitants of the GT bed and couldn’t stop scratching.

Loading the bags, I thought back to Kullu just 24 hours earlier. After the road blocks, our long drive through the storm and the masses swarming the streets of Amritsar, it seemed so long ago. Another day in an adventure of a lifetime. As I strapped into the grubby Volvo, I wondered if our paperwork was in order for clearing out of India and into Pakistan. How would the road south to Karachi be?

For a lingering moment, I could see shiny Volvo GTs waiting for us at the finish line, half a world away.

Follow Garry on Instagram @garrysowerby

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