Road Trip Lessons | Hitchhiking in Trucks across India

From savouring Kashmir’s scenery and goshtaba to meeting gun-wielding Naga women, in this interview, author Rajat Ubhaykar navigates tales from the road.  
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Author Rajat Ubhaykar planted himself in the company of truck drivers to hitchhike 10,000 kilometres along the length and breadth of India. Photo courtesy: Rajat Ubhaykar

If a book were to be judged by its cover, Rajat Ubhaykar’s Truck De India!: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan would fare just fine. Bright red, tinges of teal, green and gold, the artwork stars the front of a truck in all its finery, bejeweled like a bride.

A predictable “Horn Ok Please” headlines the back, and the text is just as rich and colourful. That’s because to bring out this book the young journalist hitchhiked 10,000 kilometres, all of them unplanned, along India’s highways. Ubhaykar planted himself in the company of truck drivers and their abiding khalasis (apprentices), experiencing India from a vantage point that’s both unusual and exclusive—the mysterious cabins of countless dazzling trucks.

Navigating the insurgency-ridden NH39 or saving space for bhatkal biryani and spiced clams along South India’s stunning coastline, the author recounts the India he saw—and felt.

 

What does India look like from the windshield of a blingy truck?

Trucks are, like I have written in my book, the kings of the road. They have a beastly presence and offer the most commanding views of the Indian highways and the Indian countryside. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, when I was travelling from the coastal strip of Nellore inwards to Chittoor, I witnessed one of the most picturesque sunsets, contained perfectly within the windshield. That sight can’t be experienced from the window of a sedan or even a bus—at least not at the same scale.

 

Of the 10,000 kilometres you covered, which stretch was the most challenging?

The real challenge was to find a ride… to find drivers who’d let me in on their journey. And this was particularly difficult along the National Highway 39. I had left Dimapur in Nagaland and was inching towards Imphal in Manipur, and very often, trucks here stayed off the roads because of bandhs. Given the region’s sensitivity, there’s a bandh once every six days. This highway is regarded as Manipur’s lifeline. Trucks carrying supplies, mostly food items, are all neatly numbered, guarded by authorised government vehicles. The convoys are so large that you need to stand in one spot for 20 minutes to see the entire fleet pass by you, from the first vehicle to the last. It’s quite an intimidating sight.

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Mountain mornings (right) and mountain nights (left) offered a natural balm for the travel-weary author. Photo by: Aman Arora /EYEEM/ Getty Images (mountain), Photo courtesy: Rajat Ubhaykar (men)

 

Which leg was the most stunning then?

The most beautiful stretch is actually not in the book. It was from Pathankot to Dharamshala. It was also the only time when, much to my horror, I encountered a driver who got behind the wheels after he had chugged one too many beers at a dhaba in Pathankot. But I still remember how lush and green Kangra Valley looked that day, and those snow-capped mountains flanking us. The elevation here is unlike Kashmir’s where the valleys are so steep that you can barely see what lies at the bottom of it all.

 

Part One ends with you drifting off to sleep in chilly Kashmir, finally relishing a night free of mosquitoes. What happened the next morning, and the next?

Well, I stayed in Srinagar, in a lodge in Lal Chowk. Besides visiting a few newspaper offices which are run out of really old, wooden buildings, some even scarily dilapidated, I visited a few tourist attractions, and ate a lot of food! I went to the famous Shankaracharya Temple that stands on a hill of the same name at an elevation of 1,100 feet, offering gorgeous views of almost all of Srinagar. It’s here where Adi Shankaracharya is known to have meditated. I don’t know why but I sat crosslegged in the temple complex, shut my eyes, and started to meditate. Just then a woman entered, saw me in that state, screamed the loudest scream I have ever heard, and ran for the door. I realised how long and unkempt my beard had grown.

I also did a darshan of the 15th-century Badshah Tomb where rests the mother of Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin. Red, multi-domed, by the Jhelum… here a maulvi enlightened me on how Islam took root in Kashmir. The king proclaimed he’ll adopt the religion of the person whose face he first sees in the morning. As hundreds queued up outside his durbar, through his chamber’s window he happened to first lay his eyes on a whirling dervish on a distant mountaintop. He adopted Sufism.

 

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Rolling with the truckies (top) led the author to both lilac mountains (bottom right) and delicious coastal fare involving prawn, pork, beef (bottom left) and some mighty fine toddy. Photos by: Denis. Vstrikov / Shutterstock (man), Santosh Varghese / Shutterstock (food), Subham Mehta /EYEEM/ Getty Images (mountain)

You said you ate a lot. Where did you go and what (all) did you eat?

The only sort of a “family restaurant” I ate at in Srinagar was an old haunt called Mughal Darbar. I tried a mini-Kashmiri thali which was simply delicious… flavoured rice and on it rested ghee-fried ribs, some mutton fenugreek gravy, and a lone seekh kebab. The taste of goshtaba I relished there, a white gravy starring giant mutton meatballs, is hard to forget. Most days though I ate a plate of biryani at a small joint called Mummy Please in old Srinagar. Old Srinagar is a hub for roadside grills and kebabs… chicken seekhs, mutton kebabs, all for Rs50 a plate. And then there was this mutton samosa from a hole in the wall place. Only Rs20; it was pure brilliance.

The real challenge was to find alcohol in Kashmir, which, after some asking around, I learnt is sold in only two places: One inside the army cantonment and the other, a wine shop near Dal Lake. Drinking here is a social taboo. Smoking? A style statement of sorts. Local men seem to have taken it up with great panache! But I did get my dose in the army cantonment outside which enterprising folks stood selling yellow cloth bags for people to carry their haul home, attracting as little attention as possible. Here, a CRPF jawan and two Kashmiri youngsters sat hunched over one cell phone, united in their watching of a Dogri music video. Srinagar, at least at that time, felt like any other Indian town, except for the barbed wires.

 

On the subject of food, tell us about the other petrol pumps, those that fuel the drivers—the ubiquitous Indian dhabas.

Honestly, food in the North is all dal makhni and aloo matar. So the non-vegetarian in me appreciated the journeys I took along the highways of the Northeast and South India. Seafood restaurants along the Goa-Karnataka border serve great fare. In Kozhikode, I savoured a hefty portion of squid biryani at the iconic Paragon. But Andhra’s Apollo Fish, a bite-sized, crunchy, boneless fish appetiser, sprinkled with chaat masala, was my ultimate favourite. It’s like a plate piled with fish popcorn, for about Rs150 or so. I was so impressed with one dhaba in Naidupeta, about 50 kilometre from Nellore, that as soon as I was done with my meal, I marked it on Google Maps. Then, of course, the toddy shops in Kerala are epic—you get the best toddy in Kottayam and Kumarakom. In one toddy shop for Rs800 I had appetisers featuring duck, crab, fish, beef, pork, and prawns, surrounded by passionate locals discussing politics. One of the best times I had was in Nettoor Toddy Shop in Kochi, a relatively fancy, family-friendly toddy shop by the backwaters, reading The Legends of Khasak.

In the Northeast, the Bengali dhabas served unlimited fish and chicken thalis for just Rs110.

 

You mention how you wanted to see India with its warts and blemishes. Part Two starts on a dull day in Dimapur, and the lodge you check into. Tell us about your accommodation trials.

I had one rule of thumb: Nothing more than Rs500 a night. Max 600, if I really couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t have been possibly staying in three-stars and then hitchhiking with truck drivers the next morning—there’s a lot of dissonances there. Most lodges maintained basic hygiene. But then there were places where you could tell the bedsheets haven’t been washed for days. Tired from the hours on the road, I would then simply rip them off and pass out on the bare mattress. These were obviously non-AC rooms, and they did at times get oppressively hot. But it was manageable. I chose rooms from where I could look down onto the street and observe whatever it had to offer… liveliness, silence, a lot, or nothing at all.

 

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While Truck De India! covers some stunning stretches of the journey (top), here the author delves into his memory to discuss the unpenned scenic beauty of the leg from Pathankot to Dharamshala (bottom). Photos by: PKG Photography / Moment / Getty Images (truck), Pardeep Singh / Moment / Getty Images (prayer flags)

Off topic, what are some of your favourite travel destinations?

I like Nepal a lot. In my last year in college, I was in Pokhara with a few friends, hanging out with sadhus. We went to a restaurant and got chatting with the chef. It just so happened that by the time we left, the chef had volunteered to take us to the Annapurna Base Camp. We took off the next morning. Sharp 6 a.m. It took us three days to ascend and then we realised we had to return to college soon. Crazy as it sounds, we descended in a day, all thanks to our guide’s ingenuity. When we were exhausted to a point where we couldn’t lift a step, he made us stop at a village and chug rice beer. “See the energy you get after this,” he had said. He was right!

I also really like the Ajanta caves. I remember climbing up a hill to see the caves’ facade. It was simply mind-blowing to see Indian history, all the way back from 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., come alive so artistically on a wall.

In Maharashtra, Kaas Plateau is another favourite. While studying at a military school in Satara, I used to go cycling there with my friends, long before it became a social media sensation. Melghat Tiger Reserve, amidst the Satpura range, isn’t as commercialised as other Maharashtrian attractions along the Western Ghats, and that’s why I like it very much. Lot of natural rock formations. I remember staying in a government rest house that had hung a big Indira Gandhi photo to honour her one stray visit. Government properties are the best. Simple, yet full of character. They are always in the most strategic location, and offer clean rooms and decent food. This one, too, was super basic. Zero network. I was completely cut off. That’s an ideal holiday for me.

 

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  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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