Why did four Kerala priests go on a 22-day road trip to Himalayas?

Fr. Sanish Thekethala, Fr. Wilson Perepadan, Fr. Seemon Kanjithara and Fr. Rocky Roby Kalathil (left to right) travelled to Umling La, the highest place that can b reached by road, in the Himalayas. Photo: Manorama

The sight of a 2019 model Ford Figo hatchback with four priests – Fr. Sanish Thekethala, Fr. Rocky Roby Kalathil, Fr. Wilson Perepadan and Fr. Seemon Kanjithara -- sitting comfortably inside took everyone by surprise. The surprise element was not in the make of the car but the destination the priests were planning to visit in the automobile. When the quartet informed their dear and near ones about their trip to the Himalayas, they thought that the priests were travelling by air or rail. The friends and relatives had no clue whatsoever about the priests’ intention to drive a car from Kerala to the Himalayas.

Though the four belong to different age groups, they have a lot in common. Apart from being priests, they hail from a small hamlet called Aloor in Thrissur district. Moreover, they are close friends who stand for each other through thick and thin. A while ago, the priests kick-started their road trip to Umling La, which is the highest place in the world that can be reached by road, in the Himalayas. The quartet opens their mind on the venturesome car journey and shares some interesting and thought-provoking vignettes about the road trip.

The priests in Goa (left) and Gujarat (right). Photo: Special Arrangement

A daring Himalayan trip in hatchback
Many people apparently gave thumbs down to their road trip to the Himalayas that too in a small hatchback car, says Fr. Wilson. “We were bombarded with questions such as ‘Did the car give any issues?’ and ‘Did you have health problems on the way?’ As a matter of fact, we had a smooth drive to the Himalayas and the car didn’t break down even once during the long journey,” he adds with a touch of confidence.

The senior-most of the quartet is Fr. Rocky, who was the obvious team leader, and everyone looked up to him for guidance and advice. The youngest of the lot was Fr. Saneesh, who was the main driver as he was at the wheel for close to 9,000km during the arduous journey. The other three priests spoke highly of the exemplary driving skills of Fr. Saneesh. It was always great fun for Fr. Saneesh as he loved driving a lot. “Our aim was to clock nearly 450km every day. It was both exciting and challenging to drive through unfamiliar terrain,” says Fr. Saneesh.

Meticulous planning and bold decisions
The quartet had been thinking of setting on a Himalayan journey for long. They watched many travelogues to know how hard it is to reach the Himalayas by road all the way from Kerala. They also met Thrissur-native Hafiz, who went to the Himalayas on a motorbike, and he gave a suggestion to plan a road trip to Umling La. After he said that Umling La was a great destination to reach by car, they started to ferret out information relating to Umling La road trips. First, the four priests prepared a route map and a list of things that should be carried during the journey. They stocked requisite medicines and dry fruits and serviced the vehicle.

The journey started from Nandikara church in Thrissur district on August 29. As the boot space of the car was pretty crammed, they had to jettison certain items at the last moment. A ‘Mass kit’ (accessories to conduct a Mass) was first kept inside the car. “We never missed a Mass during the entire 22-day journey,” the group says in unison.

Sparse knowledge of Hindi
The four men are a testimony that one can travel through north India with sparse knowledge of Hindi. None of them knew how to speak Hindi and they survived on English and common sign language. And they never had any problem in communicating with Hindi-speaking people. The few Hindi words they knew were ‘khana’ (food), ‘pani’ (water) and ‘kitna’ (how much).

An incident that happened in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh explains how effectively they communicated with local people. The priests decided to visit a Jain Temple in Gwalior and ‘Google Maps’ was obviously the guide for them. But unfortunately, they lost their way and reached a small marketplace. They were totally lost and didn’t know in which direction the temple was situated. They saw two or three villagers bantering and approached them for help. With an inquisitive expression, they asked, ‘Jain Temple?’ Without any hesitation the villages replied, ‘Seedha, seedha’, meaning go straight. Even though they were hearing that word for the first time, funnily enough, they never had to refer a dictionary to know its exact meaning.

Umling La – a heavenly experience
The group reached the blissful Umling La, which is 19,024ft above sea level and 110km away from Hanle, on the ninth day of the journey. The road from Umling La to Hanle is apparently a vast expanse of mud way and travellers can get confused as to which direction they should head. But the guiding light is the heap of stones which were kept by earlier trippers who were on the way to Umling La. A proper tarred road starts only from Nurbula Pass. While driving on the stretch from Nurbula Pass, they got a feeling that they were travelling on a plain straight road. But apparently, they were climbing a steep road. The car stopped after a while and everyone, except Fr. Saneesh, pushed the car up the road.

It was literally an uphill task and they were gasping for air after a while. The oxygen level was low in the region and Umling La wasn't far away from that point. The trio who pushed the car was totally exhausted. But weariness turned into ecstasy as they finally stepped into the heavenly Umling La. The priests were apparently on a photo-clicking spree after they reached Umling La as every spot ther was picture-postcard material.

A big salute to soldiers
Just before reaching Manali in Himachal Pradesh, they got stuck in traffic for long at one point. The soldiers in the vicinity informed them that the road ahead was blocked due to landslides. They also said that it would take close to 90 minutes to clear the road. As the priests were tired, they decided to take a rest in a nearby hotel with moderate facilities. The next morning when they started their journey, they found that landslides had damaged more than 300 to 400m of the road. It should be noted that the Border Road Organization (BRO) cleared the road for traffic at night. “We are bound to give a big salute to the BRO personnel who worked round-the-clock to remove the landslide debris,” the priests note.

During the long journey, they had to drive through mud roads. They had to also pass through narrow mountain passes where the chances of huge rocks falling on the pathways were high. And the temperature would apparently hover around 8 degrees Celsius. They found that there were no barricades at many spots along the roads of the Himalayas. The quartet had to drive slowly as they didn’t know what was around the corner, literally.

Nothing but life for them
The bitter cold struck the priests when they reached Pang, which is on the Kullu-Manali road. They reached Pang at 8 pm and took a room for rent at Rs 300 per person. There was no electricity and the only source of power was the generators. The group slept in a room that had a coarse sheet as roof and the temperature outside was freezing at minus 3 degrees Celsius. They couldn’t sleep properly as the room had only basic facilities. The four say it was an experience that they won’t forget in their lives.

The quartet had to face harsh cold weather, when they reached Hanle, which is near Umling La. The team stayed in a small building that had tree branches and mud as a roof and the fear factor was apparently gripping them when they slept in that building. It is said that such a roof was built as there is no rain in the region. “South Indians are excited about snowfall. But people living in places with snowfall have to face a lot of hardship. When the snowfall is severe in certain months, the local people are forced to leave their homes for safer places. For us it is an experience and for them it is life.”

The 22 eventful days
After leaving Nandikara, the quartet’s first destination was Bengaluru in Karnataka. From Bengaluru, the group reached Jammu after touching Hyderabad in Telangana, Nagpur in Maharashtra, Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, Agra in Uttar Pradesh and Jalandhar and Amritsar in Punjab. From Jammu, the team reached Ladakh via Kashmir, Srinagar and Kargil. While coming back, they reached Himachal Pradesh after passing through Leh and Kullu-Manali. Finally, they reached Kerala after driving the car through Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Goa and Mangaluru. The priests mostly stayed in Bishop Houses or facilities related to churches and they got a warm welcome at all these places.

During the course of the journey, the priests never went in search of Kerala food as they had local food for the place they were in. They had flavoursome biriyani in Hyderabad that too at the dead of night and the popular mutton soup from Kashmir. The taste of ‘aloo paratha’ of Punjab and the must-try-item ‘Maggi’ noodles from the wayside eateries of Himachal Pradesh still lingers in their minds, say the priests.

The group apparently had vegetarian dishes mainly, throughout the journey. There were instances when the quartet had to depend on stocked dry fruits to stop hunger pangs when finding a suitable restaurant was a tall order. Another challenge they faced was to fill fuel on time. While returning from Umling La, they thought of filling up the fuel tank at the next available petrol station skipping the one near Umling La. But to their astonishment they didn’t have enough fuel to reach the next petrol pump and they were forced to drive back to the petrol station near Umling La.

In another instance, they had to face a shortage of fuel as the petrol stations were on strike on the stretch between Gujarat and Jaipur. They had to finally buy fuel from a private petrol station.

A treasure trove of experience
Kashmir is always synonymous with snow-covered valleys but the priests saw something opposite to that perception. A barren land devoid of any grass or plants greeted them when they reached Kashmir. “We used to joke with each other that we have reached some other place and this is not Kashmir.” But when they came to know about the ground reality they had to change their opinion. Kashmir springs a surprise every moment with varied climate and terrain, they learnt. The priests say they have only great respect and admiration for local people and soldiers who are staying in Kashmir despite inhospitable climate. The quartet had an opportunity to have breakfast with the soldiers. As a matter of fact, the soldiers invited the priests for breakfast after they came to know that the four men were travellers.“We got a wealth of experience from the expedition. It is true that travelling makes us broad-minded and wise. We have future plans to travel to other destinations,” the priests say in unison.

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