The BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Car Rally was an exercise undertaken by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Autocar India on behest of the Ministry of External Affairs. It was a convoy drive through India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China to promote trade, commerce, investment, people to people contact and friendship in the region. More than 3000kms would be covered from Kolkata to Kunming. 80 participants from the four countries were invited to participate in it. They included delegates, government officials, businessmen, doctors, media personnel, technicians and even high ranking officers of Tata Motors.
Twenty cars comprising of Tata Safari Stormes, Arias, a Xenon and Chinese built Left Hand Drive Hawtai SUVs were parked at The ITC Sonar, Kolkata. The two gentlemen from Tata Motors did a fantastic job to clean and sticker them. Each car was fitted with a CB Radio for communication. The teams from India and Bangladesh would be using Tata vehicles, while the teams from China and Myanmar would use the Hawtais.
Inside the hotel, there was a counter for registering the participants' names. On registration, each participant was given a backpack of goodies comprising of Rally T-Shirts, a jacket and a cap among other things. These were to be worn throughout the course of the Rally. Following this was a briefing. Bloomberg Autocar Show editor and presenter, Renuka Kirpalani read out the rules and cleared any doubts that the participants had. She was also the Chief Marshal for the event. This was followed by a photograph session with dignitaries, drinks and a grand dinner where we acquainted ourselves with the other participants.
Flag Off and drive from Kolkata to Petropole - February 22, 2013:
All the cars were driven in the morning to the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata and lined up in numerical order 1 - 20. Three Autocar drivers including me, were deputed to drive the three Team Bangladesh Tata Arias on the Indian legs of the Rally. I was to drive car #4. After breakfast, there was a cultural programme performed mainly by children. This was followed by speeches from the dignitaries on the dias, notably the Honourable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Ms. Mamta Banerjee and the President of the CII, Mr. Adi Godrej.
The CM flagged off the convoy at approximately 2pm. The lead Safari Storme #1 was driven by Autocar India editor, Hormazd Sorabjee. We had been assigned a police escort. Most of the traffic was stopped so that the convoy could pass without any hindrance. While on the move, I got to know more about my passengers. Riding shotgun was a senior news editor and the three gentlemen sitting in rear were officials from various departments. Within a few moments we were chatting and laughing like we had been friends since ages. Most of the talk was about what each of us does and our families. Lunch was had on the move. The packets provided at the start came in handy. I was carrying a lot of music with me, but it soon became apparent that my passengers would not be too comfortable with hard rock, reggae or trance. So the DJ for the day was Ms. Munni Saha who had come loaded with Bangladeshi patriotic music. Driving at speeds up to 70km/h, we glided through towns which would normally be clogged with traffic. Our Chinese participants were not well-versed in English and since they all had Left Hand Drive cars, they did have some trouble keeping up. Occasionally, the convoy would halt and regroup. In another incident an errant driver of a small commercial vehicle grazed the front right door of car #2. Other than that, it was smooth sailing. The road, which was a single carriageway, was fairly good with the occasional pothole. The Aria, which was loaded with people and luggage, gobbled up the miles with no trouble. As we crossed railway lines many times and drove towards the Bangladesh border, my team members gave enlightened me about the people of the region, the trees and even gave me a lesson on the history of the road. All very interesting. Passengers of the other cars in the convoy had even resorted to singing on thr CB Radio. A lady from Myanmar even sang a Bollywood song. The 80kms to Petropole, which is the border town was a breeze. What was touching was the rousing welcome we got. School children lined up along the road, showered us with flowers and shook our hands. An Average Joe like me had never felt so important or welcome anywhere. It was tough to digest.
Anyway, this is where I was to get off. I bade goodbye to the team promising to drive them when the convoy entered India again. Aria #4 was taken over by a Bangladehsi driver, while I got into a backup Sumo and returned to my favourite metropolitan city, Kolkata.
After spending a day enjoying the historic monuments and street food of this wonderful city, I flew to Silchar in Assam. The next day I was driven to the border town of Sutarkandi in Karimganj district where I would rejoin the Rally. The convoy, meanwhile, drove through Jessore, Dhaka and Sylhet to Sutarkandi.
Sutarkandi to Silchar - February 25, 2013:
Around 11.30am, the convoy rolled back into India. A function was arranged at the customs office at Sutarkandi to welcome the participants. After parking the cars in the compound, gifts and bouquets were given to the participants by school children and a tilak was applied on their foreheads. The lunch, which was arranged by the army, was delicious and filling. Following this was a cultural programme which incorporated dances from not just Assam, but various parts of the country. It was so entertaining and lively, that many of the rallyists (mostly ladies) started dancing on the stage with the performers. The atmosphere was electric and enjoyed by one and all.
Just before the performance was over, I went over to Aria #4 and checked it as I always do before I set off. Starved of driving for almost three days, I was itching to get behind the wheel. It was here that my team members saw me again and welcomed me back in the car. They treated me to some Bangladeshi delicacies which they had got for me while I was not with them. cultural programme over, after saying goodbye and thanking the people who had assembled to greet us, we made our way towards Silchar. The drive as such was uneventful, but, the number of people who had turned up and lined the entire length of the road to Silchar was simply astonishing! Most of the time, I had to keep my right hand free for waving to the crowds. The road was not too bad and the speed was low, so this was not too difficult. My passengers, who were by now well and truly in their element were cheering with the crowds, waving out and even shooting proceedings with a camcorder. We talked about what we did over the past three days and I told them what to expect over the next couple of days. When we reached Silchar there was still an hour or so of daylight left. Parking for the cars was arranged at a stadium. Once again, there was a grand reception at the stadium for us. Speeches from local dignitaries and a few dances followed. It had been a tiring day for everyone, so we had dinner which was arranged by the government and retired to our hotel rooms.
Silchar to Imphal - February 26, 2013:
At 7am, all the participants were at the stadium to start what would turn out to be the most gruelling day of the Rally. After a few speeches and a cultural event, the convoy set off from Silchar and headed towards Imphal, which is in Manipur. Ahead of us lay 260kms of extremely poor roads. The loose and uneven surface can be a nightmare for inexperienced drivers. Add to that, the road runs along the faces of mountains. The drops are sheer and there are no railings to stop a vehicle going over and as with most mountain roads in our country, landslides can occur at any time too.
Even then, cheered by locals, and led by a military Gypsy, off we went. In the car, we talked about something that I could relate to - the Indian automobile industry. My Bangladeshi passengers were particularly interested in the little Nano. It was obvious since it is an extremely convenient city runabout and very cheap too. Perfect for a developing country. A little later, one of my passengers caught sight of a Tata Magic Iris wanted to know everything about it. Bangladeshi patriotic songs were once again playing on the stereo. By now, even though I couldn't understand what they meant, I was getting well-versed with them. We entered the state of Manipur and at the norder town of Jiribam, we were given another absolutely fabulous reception. Things looked good. The scenery was nothing short of stunning, but, as the miles went by, the road went from fairly smooth tarmac, to broken surface to loose surface. A lot of dust was being kicked up by the cars and visibility was poor. We had to maintain a big gap between each car so that no mishap occured. On loose surfaces, keeping up the momentum was the key to not getting bogged down. On harder surfaces, care had to be taken to see to it that the undercarriage would not scrape.
The Aria which was probably weighing just under 3 tonnes with the load it was carrying, managed without any issues. So did the other Arias, the Stormes and the Xenon. Dust trails are not new turf for me. So far from feeling frightened, I was enjoying the drive. However, a couple of Hawtais were not so lucky. The fine dust had taken a toll on the transmission of car #10 which was driven by the Chinese team. It would just not move. All efforts to get it going were in vain. It was finally pushed onto a truck With great difficulty. Far ahead, the rest of the convoy was waiting.
Here we discovered that car #16, driven by the Myanmar team had developed an oil leak, probably after taking a hit on the undercarriage. After a lot of discussions, some sealant and packing tape were used to try and stop the leak. The trick worked and the leak was now brought under control. We were carrying a lot of spare oil cans with us. This meant that car #16 could continue after a topping up. We had been stationary for well over an hour now and longing to move. So we did. Progress was slow. Many bridges along this road permit just one vehicle to cross at a time and the road winding through the mountains was dangerous. All this, coupled with regular halts to regroup and check the damaged car meant that we were running way behind schedule. A little way up the road, we took another halt at an army camp where they brewed us some fresh tea. In the next town, Nungba, lunch had been arranged for us, but since it was well into the evening and we were running late, we decided to excuse ourselves and skip it. Driving on those roads after nightfall would be very tricky and everyone knew that. So while there was daylight, we decided to cover as much ground as possible.
But our efforts were in vain as nightfall beat us comfortably. Meanwhile, in Aria #4, the Bangladeshi patriotic music had made way for some Asha Bhosle classics - a welcome change. With regular halts to regroup, we made our way into Imphal at 10.30pm. The roads were closed to the public, but I was moved by the number of people who had stayed up and come out on the streets to welcome the convoy. The authorities had very kindly arranged a cultural programme and a traditional Manipuri style dinner for us. This was silghtly difficult for me as it had been a very long time since I had had any meals sitting down with my legs crossed. The food however, was delicious. By the time we parked the cars and called it a day, it was past 1.30am.
Imphal to Moreh - February 27, 2013:
Even though the previous day had been tiring and we had had just a few hours of sleep, we were up and ready by 6am. We took the cars for a wash, had them refuelled and lined them up inside Kangla Fort. Once again, we had car #16 topped up with oil to prevent any problems. The Government of Manipur felicitated the participants and presented them with mementos.
It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Karl Slym, the Managing Director of Tata Motors. He would be joining the rally and driving car #1 from this point. On the request of another senior official from Tata Motors, I gave up my drivers seat in the Aria and made myself comfortable in a backup Safari with our chief photographer and videographer. My job for the day would be to help them select spots and shoot. I soon found out that this was much harder than what I had been doing for all these days. It involved racing up ahead waiting for the convoy in the hot sun. Even then, I had a good time chatting with the lovely policewomen of Manipur and the locals. The distance from Imphal to Moreh, which is the last Indian town before one crosses over to Myanmar, is about 110kms. The main towns along the route are Thoubal and Tengnoupal. Car #8 (Team China) had some overheating issues, but that didn't hold us up for long. We reached Moreh at lunch time and gorged ourselves the delicacies that were prepared for us. This was the last meal I had with the participants of the BCIM Car Rally, 2013. After this, I bade goodbye to all of them, more so to the occupants of Aria #4 and promised to keep in touch. I followed the convoy to the border and then turned back towards Imphal while the Rally crossed the bridge and continued into Myanmar.
To conclude, it was not the fastest, longest or toughest drive in my life by a long shot but it was the most special. It's how many smiling faces I saw and all the friends I made that made it more than worthwhile.
I'd like to thank the CII, Tata Motors and ofcourse, Autocar India for giving me this opportunity to be a part of this special drive.