“Whew! What an adventure. Now that it’s finished, I can honestly say that I’m glad I did it. Would I do it again? Nope. Would I go back? Yes, I would go back to parts of India (and definitely Nepal) again, but just as a tourist, not as a rickshaw driver.”
The above snippet was taken from the last page of the blog that I wrote while doing the Rickshaw Run in 2011. I totally meant what I wrote at the time, yet here I am again, two and a half years later, and I seem to have gotten into the same mess all over again.
So, what is this Rickshaw Run anyway? As the official web site states:
A 3,500km (2,200 mile) pan-Indian adventure in a 7-horsepower glorified lawnmower. The Rickshaw Run is easily the least sensible thing to do with two weeks.
No set route, no back-up, no way of knowing if you’re going to make it. The only certainty is that you will get lost, you will get stuck and you will break down.
It’s just you and your mates in a wholly unsuitable vehicle, traversing the subcontinent enduring whatever shit the road throws at you.
That is probably the most succinct description I’ve ever read–I couldn’t do a better summation myself. If you’re still struggling to understand exactly what this folly entails, take a peek at the below video.
Somehow I seemed to forget all of the unfortunate mishaps that happened to my buddy Mike and I during the 2011 incarnation of the Rickshaw Run. I remembered only a dashing adventure that we both managed to live through–masterfully-brewed masala chai, wonderful food, and delightful people ready to assist at a moment’s notice. Gone totally were the reminiscences of miles upon miles of smoldering trash fires, desperate poverty, horrid roads, rush hour hell, and cows (along with their detritus) placed in the most inconvenient areas of your path possible.
Not to mention, it would be a most excellent opportunity to promote the new podcast! With that in mind, my podcasting partner Matt and I signed up for the longest, toughest stretch of the Rickshaw Run–Cochin, Kerala (in the south-west) to Shillong, Meghalaya (in the north-east)–a journey of about 3,000 miles or so.
Our deposit paid in full, we were now locked in–the adventure set to begin in early April, 2014.
One Slight Problem
In late January I departed the US, carrying everything I’d be needing for the next six months or so on my back. I was set to spend a month in Thailand in February, and then a month in Japan in March before flying to Cochin City, where Matt and I would meet up a few days before the launch of the Rickshaw Run. Matt would be the one bringing over the Rickshaw-specific supplies we had ordered on Amazon, as there was no way I was going to carry around a gasoline funnel, duct tape, wrenches and zip ties for the two months prior.
Halfway through my Japan trip–two weeks prior to the start of the Run–Matt and I had a heart to heart via Skype, and he admitted that he didn’t think that going on the Rickshaw Run was something he wanted to do. Due to a lack of funds and pressing commitments in his business and personal life, Matt had decided not to join me in India. This left me in quite the bind, simply put.
On that day I asked myself:
- Do I want to have a go at this alone? I could always just not do it and have a leisurely jaunt through India instead.
- Could I even do the Rickshaw Run alone? The first time through had been damn hard, even with a partner.
- What about all of the supplies we had so carefully curated while back in the states–now they’re stuck in Philly!
The answer to the first two questions was a resounding yes and yes–I’d find someway to make it happen (no way I’m going to pay my half of the entry fee for nothing!). As for the supplies, Matt agreed to ship them over to a friend in Japan so that I could intercept and take them with me to India. And with that, I wished Matt luck, and continued onward, solo.
A Chance Encounter
I was taking an Air Asia flight from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur to Kerala–it was the cheapest I could find when I had booked it many months prior. Unfortunately, during that interim span of time (two weeks prior in fact) a Malaysia Airlines jet had taken off from Kuala Lumpur airport never to be seen again. This made the security queues at the airport slightly faster than molasses rolling uphill, and I passed the four and a half hours waiting in a single file line (to get through ONE security scanner) by repeatedly looking at the clock on my phone to make sure I wasn’t going to miss my connecting flight.
Heading towards the connecting flight on the tarmac I ended up walking behind two foreigners. Because of the timing and destination, I had a hunch that they might be fellow participants. That hunch was confirmed when I heard them talking about it on the plane, as one guy’s seat was assigned next to me, and the other was in the row in front. We got to chatting during the flight and it turns out that both had signed up just weeks prior when a friend had invited them to join his team. I had a feeling that none of them knew what they were getting into, as four grown men for three weeks in a rickshaw is not the best idea in the world.
I explained the story of my plight to them, and the guy sitting next to me asked if he could instead join me as a co-pilot. And that’s how I met Loch, my new Rickshaw Run team mate.
Now, a few funny coincidences here:
- Loch lives nearby me in Ann Arbor, Michigan and grew up 20 minutes from my hometown.
- We seemed to be the only two people that were planning on going up (and out of the way) to Bangalore–myself to drop off a friend (more on that later), and him to visit Arbor Brewing Company Bangalore. I did not know this place existed, despite having been many times to their flagship brewpub in Ann Arbor. In.
- He had no particular time limit in place, nor any flight back booked–he was totally winging it, as was I. (Most participants had jobs to get back to or a firm date that they had to catch a plane onward.)
What can I say–it’s like it was meant to be.
Just Like Riding a Bicycle
I arrived at the prepping grounds to find that there was my Rickshaw, painted just as I had requested: with a (Detroit Tigers) tiger leaping, claws outstretched on the front, the Detroit Olde English D on each side, and “Made in Detroit” painted on the back.
This will do quite nicely.
The first few days this time around were a bit smoother than last time. I (sort of) knew what I was doing, what I needed to do, and most importantly, I knew how to pilot a rickshaw. This last statement alone made me an elder statesmen, as I was the only veteran driver out of the 150+ slightly mad folks that signed up for the event.
As in 2011, I spent the four days before launch test driving the vehicle, requesting adjustments here and there from the on-site pit crew. There were also cup holders to be installed, future friends to be met, and drinks to be had. It’s a pretty crazy rush to outfit your rickshaw with all of the doodads you think will make the journey more enjoyable–you’d frequently see a half-dozen brightly painted rickshaws all lined up outside of the same small speaker shop, all requesting an entire stereo install job (every piece of the absolute worst quality imaginable–thanks China!).
Although I left Loch to attend to his prior team’s rickshaw for much of the four days (they needed all the help they could muster), I wasn’t completely by my lonesome. I knew Matt–the organizer from The Adventurists company–from my 2011 trip, and also sort-of knew Charlie through Facebook and mutual friends. In addition, I ended up meeting two other people from Michigan that were doing the rally (!) , as well as scores of other new friends here and there.
When you’re doing something so ridiculous it doesn’t take long to make new friends with the other crazy people doing the same silly thing.
Start Your Engines
A day prior to launch I took a taxi to the train station to pick up my fellow-traveler friend Kym, who was coming in from Goa. We had arranged that she would accompany me for a few days up until we reach Bangalore, at which point she would grab a flight back to NYC. Rickshaw Run light, if you will. I introduced her to Loch, and we all joined in the revelry that night as all of the rallyers gathered on a nearby island for drinking, dancing, and general debauchery (as usually happens at the beginning and end of such events).
The next morning the three of us were off. We waited a bit for the throngs of less-experienced drivers to dissipate through the streets ahead of us and happily exited the launch area as the last rickshaw left (along with Loch’s friend’s rickshaw and one other team that had absolutely no clue as to what they were doing and needed directions).
I was the first to drive, and although I had driven back and forth through the city during the preceding four days, it wasn’t until we got out on the open road where I felt it all coming back to me. Here I was again, in India, in a rickshaw, with a long road ahead. All I could do was hope that I had paid my dues enough in 2011–that this year would be a less bumpy road (both literally and figuratively, of course).
The first day we did a pretty good job of sticking together and staying out of trouble. Heading the same route east as most of the others, we encountered fellow teams pretty regularly until we had passed through Idamalayar Forest and hooked a hard left to head up towards Bangalore. The going was slow, as there were a lot of curvy roads, mountains, and rain on our way, but the views were worth it.
In a bid to make up time on the second day, we high tailed it out of our hotel early in the morning and headed north. We made pretty good progress all day, but at some point we realized that there was no way in hell we were going to make it to Bangalore before dark. The decision was made to keep on going regardless, and that’s what we did–losing Loch’s friends at some point along the way. No matter though–they’re smart lads, they’ll figure something out.
We continued in our solo rickshaw from that point forward, having the good fortune to run into a couple on their way to Bangalore during a gas station fill-up. We told them our intentions, and they suggested stopping somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of hotels between there and Bangalore, so we bid them adieu and continued on our way.
After a while we noticed that they had been in front of us in their car for a while–it’s like they were escorting us to our destination. We weren’t sure of it at first, but after a couple hours we were pretty certain (the car could have breezed past us at anytime, since our top speed was about 55 kph (35 mph). They ended up driving with us for close to four hours, taking us to a cafe to grab some dinner just before entering the city. They even went so far as to drive us all the way to the hotel we were aiming for, and then showing us another vacant property when it turned out that the hotel we has picked was full.
Good people–pretty much the norm throughout much of India, if past experience is any indication.
At the end of the day we had driven over 600 km (375 miles) in a 16 hour block. It was time for bed.
The next day we had lunch with the couple who had so generous escorted us the night before. They took us to see their small IT office, and took a lot of pictures of the three of us sitting in their office chairs (yah, I don’t know either). They did their best to make themselves very useful, assisting me with getting my SIM card working, and dropping Kym off at an appointment she had in the city. That night we headed to Arbor Brewing Company and delighted in the presence of excellent food paired with real American-style craft beer. It was glorious.
In the meantime, Kym had decided that she hadn’t yet had enough punishment and elected to continue with us until we reached the next big city–Chennai. Onward we went.
The next few days were a bit of a blur as Loch and I logged many a long day driving from city to city. Just prior to reaching Chennai Kym again decided to continue along with us, this time until Kolkata, which would mean another five days or so of rough driving in order to get there in time for her to make her flight back to the US. We were up for the challenge, and we hauled ass up the eastern coast of India (well, as much as one can in a 7HP rickshaw).
Ongole. Visakhapatnam. Bhubaneshwar–point to arbitrary point on the map. We went from city to city, hotel to hotel, barely stopping from one to another. Wake up, eat, drive, eat, sleep–this was our routine for the next few days. The roads were generally cooperative, even if the city traffic wasn’t at times. The few highlights encountered–the strange rainbow cloud we saw at dusk, marble-sized hailstorms forcing us off of the road, Kym’s first go at driving, finally running into more teams on the road, the women who sat in the middle of the road causing traffic backups miles long to protest a local child getting run over, pretend cops trying to get us to pull over at night, groups of men coming up to us to figure out what we were doing and requesting photos–were all welcome respites from the monotony of the road.
We reached Kolkata at around 10PM and proceeded to search for a hotel. Kym’s flight was early the next morning–we had barely made it in time, but we managed to pull it off.
And then there were two.
After a day spent trying to fix some minor issues with our ‘shaw in Kolkata we headed back out on the road. Our next big target was Siliguri, where we had arranged to meet up with the convoy mates we had lost prior to Bangalore. Two long days and a few awful roads later we met up with our long lost companions on the outskirts of the city.
It was agreed that we would take a couple days to rest up and get things sorted before heading into the mountains together. Our plan was to head north to the famous former British colonial outpost and tea area of Darjeeling for a few days before heading even further north to the state of Sikkim. Before we did that it was about time for our second rickshaw tune-up (as we weren’t able to get it done in Kolkata), so we headed to a local garage the next day to get everything squared away.
It was already late afternoon by the time we were finished with the inspection, but we made a group decision to press on into the mountains anyway–via the more difficult of the two road options, of course. Good thing we got that tune-up!
Loch’s former teammate Iwan was now riding with us, as the other two guys in his crew were going to need to split for the finish line (still a few days away) soon after reaching Darjeeling. The extra weight made going up some very steep roads all that much more difficult, but at the same time it helped to have someone else to get out and push when needed.
It wasn’t a shock to us that we ended up losing the other rickshaw yet again barely a few miles out of town. As with the time before, we knew they could take care of themselves, so we continued on our way–the less night driving that we had to do on steep roads the better. Of course, it was well into nighttime by the time we finally reached Darjeeling. The closer we got to the mountain enclave the more the traffic seemed to pile up, exacerbated by the prevalence of one-way roads in spots. We checked into a decent hotel in the middle of town and proceeded to gorge ourselves on momo (Tibetan dumplings) and beer before hitting the sack. The other rickshaw was still nowhere to be found.
The other guys finally caught up with us the next day–they had stopped in a village along the way rather than drive through unfamiliar mountains at night. Smart move. We spent the rest of the day exploring the town, and even discovered an illegal bar set up in someone’s house where we enjoyed a few drinks of the local whiskey (alcohol sales were banned for a three day period because of local elections, much to our chagrin).
As fast as they had arrived, they were out on the road again, leaving the three of us to our own devices. Before we set off again we made sure to catch the much-ballyhooed sunrise at Tiger Hill, but to our disappointment we had gotten up much too early all for nothing–there was a giant cloud obstructing our view.
The Trials & Travails of Sikkim
Right off the bat we got lost getting out of Darjeeling. Finally finding the correct road, we were a bit anxious as to how our brakes would hold out. The roads were the steepest yet, and when combined with the weight of three guys and our gear the brakes were definitely feeling the strain. We stopped at regular intervals to allow time for the brake drums to cool down, and in this way made slow but steady progress to the border of Sikkim. Rickshaws were a definite novelty around these parts–not to mention the three white guys driving it–and we had quite the time smiling and waving to the confused villagers of the towns we passed through on our way.
We reached the border with Sikkim a few hours later and had planned to call it a day soon after, but there was one issue: they weren’t going to let us in. Although you do not require any special papers to cross at the other two land borders into Sikkim, to cross at this particular one we should have gotten permission from the government office back in Darjeeling.
Well, we obviously couldn’t go back the way we came–the rickshaw just wouldn’t be able to make it back up the steep roads without two of us pushing the entire way. We tried our best to explain this to the border guards, but there was no swaying them–the rules are the rules. The guy in charge came up with an alternate plan: what if we hopped a ride back to town with a local, procured the papers needed, and then grabbed a ride back? They said they would watch the rickshaw for us, and we were welcome to store our larger bags in their supply closet. Seeing as that was our only logical option at this point, that’s what we ended up doing.
The ride back the way we came, although a bit disheartening, was at least a bit quicker and more comfortable than it had been in the rickshaw. We had hitched a ride with a guy passing by the checkpoint in his SUV for something like $6 per person. A bit despondent, we checked back into the same hotel we had just vacated a few hours earlier in the day. We told our story of woe to the owner of the hotel, who told us where we needed to go and what we needed to go to get the right papers, after which we could hop a public bus back to the border again. Government offices would be open the next day, so we’d try our luck then.
Except they weren’t. And they weren’t scheduled to be open the next day, or the day after that either. We showed up at the government building and were told by multiple people that it was closed, and wouldn’t reopen again until Tuesday. Loch even went into the permit office (the door was unlocked), but no one was there, and we couldn’t find any forms to counterfeit.
On the walk back it started to rain. We were bummed–Darjeeling was alright, but there was no way we wanted to waste more time and be stuck there for three additional days while the government workers were on their holidays. I was about ready to give up and just resign myself to the fact that we’d become very familiar with the city after spending over a week there, but Loch had the idea to get on a bus heading towards one of the borders where we don’t need special papers to enter, and then hopping a ride in a taxi from there, through Sikkim, back to the other border point, where we had left our rickshaw. A bit of a circuitous route, but it sounded doable!
A few hours of very cramped travel later and we were back where we started. I think the border guards were amused at our work-around, but there was no issue since we were already in Sikkim, so we grabbed our stuff, hopped in the ‘shaw and took off towards town, a short ten minute drive away.
We were told a lot of great things about Sikkim–once a separate Himalayan kingdom until it joined with India in 1975–but those things obviously didn’t start in the city of Jorethang. Like most border towns, it seemed rife with ne’er-do-wells, cheap motels (brothels?), and prostitutes. There wasn’t much we could do about our location since it was already dark, so we set about finding a place to crash for the night. We would get the hell out of there early in the morning and be well on our way to the state capital by mid-day.
That night we ended up sleeping in what we now believe was a low-end brothel–one of the top three most unpleasant places I have ever stayed at (even worse than the truckers motel my friend and I stayed at in northeast India in 2011). Graffiti all over the walls, disgusting shared bathrooms with poo everywhere, blood stains smeared on the curtains, three broken-planked bed frames holding up dirty foam mattresses, no sheets, and, of course, full of buzzing mosquitoes nipping at us all night long.
But hey–at $5 per room, the price was right!
Breaking The Record
It was a pretty straightforward drive from Jorethang to the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. You could really tell we weren’t in the lowlands anymore, as the people tended to look much more Asian than Indian. The traditional residents of Sikkim are closely related to the Nepalese, Tibetans, and Bhutanese (the the land lies between all of those areas), so it doesn’t even feel like you’re in India anymore.
We didn’t really have much of a plan once we reached Gangtok–we figured we’d check out the city a bit, see whatever sights we could reach via rickshaw, and then head back down south on our way to the finish line. This plan changed once we were connected by rally organizer Matt to his friend Dushant, and in turn his brother Ajoy, who informed us that we basically wouldn’t be able to take the rickshaw anywhere past the city without government permission.
Unbeknownst to me, the Rickshaw Run of years back used to start and end in Gangtok. Dushant was a sort of fixer for the organizers, and that’s how he got to know Matt. The start/end point (depending on the season) was pushed to Shillong city in Meghalaya because of logistics reasons after a few seasons, and that is where it has remained ever since. Here I was thinking we were such bad asses for coming all the way up here, way out of the way to the finish lines, when in fact hundreds of teams had started and finished here before. Well damn.
Lucky for us, the two brothers knew what was up and were eager to assist us in achieving our newly set goal of becoming the highest altitude rickshaw in all of India. We had our sights set of driving our three-wheeled steed to Tsongmo Changu Lake (also known as Changu Lake), a ways to the east and about 12,500 feet up in the air. It would require some good driving, a bit of fortitude, and above all, plenty of bureaucracy.
We started preparations the next day.
- Visit the ministry of tourism office and secure permission to take our rickshaw to Tsongmo Lake. This has never been done before, so when they reject you frame it as the same thing as a motorcycle (which has been granted access before), just with an extra wheel.
- Lunch time! Wait for the workers to eat and come back to the office.
- Go back to the ministry of tourism office. Sit around a few hours while they debate the merits of letting you through.
- Pay the fee and then get the access papers.
- Make six additional photocopies of aforementioned access papers, along with copies of all three of our passports including the special Sikkim access visa pages.
- Secure permission from the police to drive to Tsongmo Lake by having them sign the copies of your papers.
- Secure permission from the army to drive to Tsongmo Lake by having them sign the copies of your papers.
- Deliver the other four packets of paper to various random offices throughout the city, paying the requisite fees along the way.
Needless to say, it was a long, headache-inducing day. I don’t even think the above is a full list of what needed to be done–these are just the steps I know about. We were lucky to have Dushant and Ajoy by our side, otherwise we wouldn’t have stood a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through everything in a day and a half like we did. And we still had issues passing through the first few checkpoints, even with all of the proper documentation at hand!
The next day everything was set to go. We woke up early and met the two brothers in the middle of town. Ajoy came out from the police station with the last of the signed documents in hand, hopped in his jeep, and we proceeded to follow them out of town. That’s when I started hearing a clunking sound coming from the engine compartment. Turns out or engine was barely attached to the frame of the rickshaw, as our mount had cracked. The rest of the day was spent getting the rickshaw to a repair place and waiting for them to make everything better again–we’d have another go the next day.
Luck for us it happened when we were still within the city limits–I can only imagine what a pain in the ass it would have been to have it happen halfway to the lake.
The next day started out much the same as the day before–we met the brothers, followed them out of the city, and started our long, slow trek through the winding mountain roads. One of the army guys at the first checkpoint was giving Ajoy a hard time about our paperwork, and we were a bit scared that they were going to turn us back because we didn’t have the correct stamp on the correct form or something. The officer surprised us all by jumping in the back of the rickshaw with us–he would ‘escort ‘ us for the first part of our journey. He actually turned out to be a pretty cool guy–we couldn’t converse well as he didn’t know much English, but he even pulled his fair weight, jumping out of the ‘shaw and pushing it up the steep hairpin turns when needed. Turns out he was just looking for a bit of fun on his way to the next post.
The road was unpaved, but it didn’t provide too much of a challenge to us, for at this point we were all pretty much rickshaw driving pros (the army office couldn’t believe how good of time we were making). There were a few points that were just too steep for us to make it up with three guys riding along, so the two passengers would jump out and push, jumping back in once the rickshaw had some grip. In that fashion we made it to the lake by mid-afternoon, and celebrated by riding on yaks, taking souvenir photos, and chugging a beer. We had made it–we were now officially the highest rickshaw in India, and the first ones to make it to Tsongmo Lake via such a poorly suited vehicle.
Rhinos & Tigers, Oh My
The ride back to town was much like the way up, but down. We celebrated our group success over dinner that night (along with a live rendition of the Frozen theme song by Dushant’s friend’s daughter), stayed one more day in Gangtok to rest up, then made our way south, out of Sikkim and onto our final adventure.
Before calling it a day we had decided to use the last few days with our beloved ‘shaw to make an additional detour to eastern Assam state and try our luck at seeing some tigers and rhinos at Kaziranga National Park. It took two days to get there from Gangtok, one of which was another rather grueling 16 hour, 660 km (413 miles) day. We spent three nights there–including a day where we went on an elephant-ride safari–but not a tiger was to be found. We spotted a few rhinos (that already had their horn cut off as a precautionary measure to thwart poachers), but not much other than that.
Nevertheless, the three of us had a great time relaxing for the last few days of our journey together, knowing that this was the last stop of the line. From there I would be continuing to the finish line in Shillong while the other two guys would head off to Nagaland to try and find some of the infamous headhunter tribes known to inhabit the area in days past. The trip had actually been my idea, but alas, I had a flight to catch to Bangkok in a few days.
We parted ways one day before I’d be heading out on my own. I drove Loch and Iwan to the bus stop and watched them hop on and head off eastward. I was now alone for the first time during the past three weeks.
That evening was strange–being alone felt a bit odd. I moved rooms to another building, where of course they put the only other guests–a couple with a crying baby–right next door. I wandered around the grounds and watched the monkeys playing on the roof of the main building. I repacked all my things and made sure the rickshaw was ready for an early start the next morning. The last 300 km would be up to me.
Driving wasn’t so much of a challenge, but filling up the gas tank using the Jerrycan by myself was a bit tricky and resulted in a bit of gasoline on the ground (and my sandals). It was a bit of déjà vu climbing up the road to Shillong, as this was the road I came down in 2011 the first day of the prior rally. Unlike 2011 it was now paved, which made things a bit easier, but it was still under construction, which had me dodging trucks and road barricades for much of the uphill climb. I arrived in Shillong just in time to catch rush hour, naturally.
Before long I was reunited with my friend Giovanni, a Couchsurfer who had helped me and a few others with our rickshaw preparations in 2011. We had stayed in touch with Facebook ever since, and he had been expecting me for a few days. Giovanni was now working for The Adventurists–the organization that organized the rally–so he would be my point of contact as far as checking in and returning the rickshaw.
The next night we drive to the mechanic’s lot where all of the rickshaws were being worked on in preparation for the next group of adventure-seeking misfits to take them west towards Rajasthan, as I did in 2011. I said my goodbyes to the “glorified lawnmower” that had carried me so far, and with that Giovanni and I headed back to the city.
It was the very last rickshaw to check in.
Loch and Iwan never found the headhunters they were looking for. All in all they said it was a rather boring trip–apparently Christian missionaries had converted all of the animist tribesmen decades ago, so the head hunters had all been transformed into Jesus lovers. A pity.
As for me, I count myself quite lucky. I could have been stuck doing the entire trip on my own, for one. I’m sure I would have made the best of it–maybe even had more crazy adventures than doing it in a team–but happy it worked out like it did. My rickshaw could have been a real POS like the one in 2011, but besides the engine mount crack we had pretty much no issues the entire trip (of course, it helped that this time I knew from the start how to drive one).
Would I do it again? Sure–maybe the next time in my very own rickshaw, who knows…
You can see the actual route we followed on the Google Map above–all 3,000 miles of it!