Crossing The Khyber (Part – I)

“Good Afternoon ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board. This is your captain speaking. Please fasten seat belts. The flight is about 40 minutes. The sea is choppy but it won’t affect us as we hover above the water flying to France!”

We had just finished a scrumptious lunch of Sole of Dover, what else! We were in Dover and a glass of white wine.

Now as we flew or rather hovered over the English Channel we would be in Calais, France in a short while.

Russian made Cemente

It was a very exciting moment. I had never been on a hovercraft this size. While waiting to load I guesstimated that a couple of hundred cars had been swallowed up into the belly of the hovercraft! A lift took us to the seating area. We took our seats. David and I grinned and shook hands. This epic and exciting journey of thousands of miles had started with this one step.

Rewind to about six months previously. I lived in Montreal and my friend David lived in London. I was visiting David.

One evening over a bottle of Burgundy I told David I was going back to India. “You do that and I will be the first person to visit you!”

Nothing more was said. I returned to Montreal.

Toyota Corolla to Lucille

The year before I had got myself a Toyota Corolla. I had done a cross country run in Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The car was a delight to drive. She behaved flawlessly.

When I bought the Corolla, Toyota had nudged VW off its pedestal of being the best selling import into North America.

The first time I took the Toyota out for a drive to familiarize myself with the car and run her in, I was listening to B.B. King, one of my favorite exponents of jazz. He was strumming ‘Keys to the highway’. How appropriate! This particular car was the key to the highway as I was to find out a year later. Over hill and down dale, she seemed to flow with the road.

B.B. King who loved his guitar called it Lucille. Immediately I named my Corolla ‘Lucille’. I was to have a torrid love affair with Lucille for the next sixteen years.

The time came for me to return to India. I simply could not entertain the thought of leaving Lucille behind. While mulling over this conundrum I had a flash of brilliance. I would not take Lucille to India. Lucille would take me to India!

For years I had believed that the only way to see the countryside was through the windscreen of a car. Here I was in a position to go on a transcontinental drive and see a large part of the world from the comfort of the front seat of Lucille.
And David would not have to worry about being the first person to come and see me in India. I would take him along as my co-driver!

I had met David in Geneva a decade earlier and we became good friends. Also, very important, we had driven around Europe together. He was a good driver and I had confidence in him.

The long drive ahead

The paperwork was sorted out. I shipped Lucille to Rotterdam. I flew to London, took a bus to Dover, a ferry across the channel, and finally a bus to Rotterdam.

Went to the dock-side and collected Lucille. Both of us, Lucille and me re-fueled, petrol for her, bacon and eggs for me. We took off for Dunkirk and caught a ferry to Dover and then drove back to London.

It was an exciting drive. Lucille in Europe! Most important the overland drive to India had just started!

That evening in London, David and I sat at a sidewalk café with Lucille parked at the curb barely two meters away. We drank a toast, Tally Ho me hearties! The game was on!

Two days later, Lucille, David and I drove on to French soil as we disembarked from the hovercraft in Calais.

It had been many years since I had driven on French roads. They were better than ever and as the sun was setting on Lake Geneva that evening we had caught up with some friends from years ago.

We spent a couple of days in Geneva and early one morning hit the road for the next leg of our journey. We crossed over into France again and headed to Chamonix in the Haute Savoie region. This is the entry point for the Mt. Blanc tunnel.

When David and I lived in Geneva, the Mt. Blanc tunnel had not been built. Now complete it was hailed as an engineering marvel. France drilled from Chamonix and Italy from the other. They met in the middle. The tunnel is built under Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.

In Italy, it comes out in Courmayeur in the Italian Aosta valley. At 11.6 km long it is triple the length of any tunnel in Europe.

One of the high points of engineering is that the entry point in France is at 1,274 meters above sea level and the exit point in Italy is at 1381 meters. The passage is not horizontal but a slightly inverted ‘V’. This assists in the ventilation. Very important for a tunnel which will be pumped full of poisonous exhaust from the automobiles. Superb engineering!

Almost immediately, after exiting the tunnel in Italy we were on the Auto Strada. Fabulous roads! The Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis are built for speed, so are their roads to accommodate these missiles on wheels.

It was a fast drive with the speedometer needle hovering around 75-80 miles an hour all day long!

Milano, Brescia, Verona, Padova were just names on sign boards on the Auto Strada. By evening we exited Italy at Trieste and entered Yugoslavia. It was getting dark with a smattering of snow flurries. We checked into the first hotel we saw. We did not know a word of the local language. In the bar we pointed to the beer, ate the snacks on the table and crashed out after a long hard day’s drive.

The next morning we left the hotel without breakfast, something I never do. The sky was overcast as we hit the highway south. Soon enough we came across a petrol station and a restaurant. What joy! Lucille, David, and I re-fuelled and were on the move again.

We were in the Dinaric Alps in Yugoslavia. However, we decided to take the coastal road along the Adriatic Sea. Stunning countryside. The calm blue waters of the sea and the pine-clad mountains coming down almost touching the road. To make the drive more pleasurable there was not much traffic. Under the Communist regime driving around and having a good time was a No-No!

The Hovercraft

I wanted David to see Dubrovnik. I had seen it in 1964 while driving to Geneva. It had to be one of the most beautiful little towns I have ever seen. Small, compact with pretty red roofs and immaculately maintained. It has not changed in a thousand years. It can’t! The town sits on a finger of land jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. No place to expand. For centuries churches and mosques existed quietly and happily side by side. Until 1999. That’s when the Serbs bombed Dubrovnik!

We drove on as my destination was Macedonia. Actually, this was where my transcontinental journey really started.

My assignment was to trace the steps of Alexander the Great. It had been done many times but I had a different viewpoint. We got to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.

The next morning we looked for the temple of Delphi. Before leaving on his mission to conquer the world, Alexander decided to consult the Oracle of Delphi. She was not readily available. Alexander found her, caught her by the hair, and dragged her to the temple!

“What are the omens for my success?” asked Alexander.

“Go my son, go!” she said, “You will be successful!” He was!

I could find no oracle but to honour Alexander I rechristened ‘Lucille’ as ‘Bucephallus’, which was the name of Alexander’s horse that he rode all the way to India, and made him the conqueror of the known world.

That same day we crossed over into Greece and spent two days in Thessaloniki. We had just changed time-zones.

The main reason for these forced stops is important. Lucille, now Bucephallus was pushed to the limits many times. She needed a complete checkout.

It made sense to do this in a city where there would be a help. From now on we would have long drives through desert areas.

We looked forward to the next day. We would cross one of the most famous bridges in the world. The Bridge over the Bosporus has one leg in Europe and the other in Asia!

The most exciting and intriguing journey was about to start East of Istanbul.

The excitement of the East was stoked halfway across the Bosporus Road Bridge. The mouth-watering aroma of kebabs being cooked over an open fire wafted across from the mainland!

We had arrived in Istanbul, Constantinople of old and Uskdara before that.

In the hay days of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, it was the largest city in the world, the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. Un-accountable wealth, magnificent architecture, souks, gardens, and of course ‘ hamams’ (Turkish baths). The ‘hamams’ are a combination of a sauna and a massage parlor and the masseuse are retired wrestlers! They know exactly where to prod and poke!

It is said that no city has made a greater contribution to humanity than Constantinople.

We spent a few days sigh- seeing and there is so much to see. From the Topkapi Museum to the Souks. We were also treated to the finest Turkish cuisine. What we call ‘Mughlai’ was brought to India by the Turkish invaders.

H.Kishie Singh is based in Chandigarh and has been a motoring correspondent for newspapers like The Statesman, New Delhi, and The Tribune. His column ‘Good Motoring’, for The Tribune ran for over 27 years. He has been also been the contributing editor for magazines like Car & Bike, Auto Motor & Sport, and Auto India. His latest book Good Motoring was published recently and has co-authored a book with The Dalai Lama, Ruskin Bond, Khuswant Singh, and others, called The Whispering Deodars.

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