Friday, August 3, 2012

Roads to Remember

     Driving along Third World roads, usually in a relatively broken down buggy, is occasionally a nerve wracking experience. I have mentioned a few such occasions in earlier blogs but these are frequently part of my travel experience. In some places, the vehicle provided is lacking in such amenities as good tires, clean oil and gas, etc. That makes the prospect of getting where you are going somewhat iffy. Along the Karakorum Highway (a misnomer if there ever was one) that connects Pakistan with China, it would be exceptional if one did not encounter a series of hazards. The road itself is laden with surprises like avalanches, dislodged rocks, the absence of any warning signs or directions and very few sources of auto sustenance. At one point, about 16,000 feet high, our van came to a glacier which crossed the road we were on. We had to get out so that the driver and guide could push our vehicle to a dry spot some 200 or more yards ahead. The alternative would have been to basically retrace our entire journey. Not a welcome interruption. We made it. After crossing the border, our Chinese car was about as beat up as any rental vehicle one can imagine. In that stretch of road, we wound up with two flat tires between towns. Fortunately, the driver had an air pump which he used for the second flat stopping every few miles until we limped into our destination and were able to get the car serviced. I suspect there was no inspection of the rental vehicle before our driver picked the car and us up at our previous hotel.

     On another occasion, we had an interesting stop in West Africa when the car stalled somewhere in nowhere land and there was not even a village in sight. It was a dangerous stretch of road our guide stated and not a good place to be stranded. As I described in an earlier post, the recollection of our driver that there was a village up ahead with a mechanic in it was life saving. He hitched a ride and corralled the mechanic while we kept starting the car and moving along a few feet at a time. We met in the village, the mechanic skillfully cleaned and replaced the carburetor and we were on our way. Just another short way stop between villages. Some of the roads themselves which connect villages in remote places can be quite lacking as well. There is a road that circles Lake Toba in Sumatra which takes one through a series of picturesque towns and colorful farms. One spot was enough to bring a measure of trepidation to the hardiest traveler. It was a bridge over a small river which apparently did not make any of the recent repair lists. It consisted of two tracks semi-covered by a few planks of wood. The rest of the space was open. We got out and tiptoed over the boards on the bridge while our driver and guide worked together to bring our car across the precipitous planks which had to be carefully maneuvered so that the vehicle did not fall into the river.

    But these are only dramatic instances of everyday occurrences. I wrote about the flood in China earlier and other such experiences but there are many places where the signage is insufficient and getting stuck on a mountainside or missing a turnoff are common. We have reached the end of a rural roads in Mexico or South America and had to turn back a considerable distance. We have driven basically with no discernible gasoline in our tank because we did not know the actual distance to the place we were going. With a guide, the tourist faces eventful and unplanned emergencies all over the Third World. Without one, getting lost is commonplace. So just get in the car, head for your destination and hope that fate is good to you.

Along the Karakorum Highway
Pakistan-China Border

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