Four Volkswagen Beetles left Dhaka at dawn on 19 March, headed for Kathmandu. It was smooth sailing all the way, past the India-Bangladesh border at Chyangrabanda, the night stop in Siliguri and right up to Kakarbhitta. But then, the first stoppage because the Nepali immigrations/customs officers did not know of the 'Carnet passage' papers that allow transborder travel for vehicles.
"There are military checkpoints everywhere, which we did not even see in India's heavily militarised Siliguri region or in North Bangladesh," says Zahid Moin. He hastens to add, "But the armymen were all very pleasant and always waved us through."
What struck Murtaza Sibgatul Haq most was to see women active in the many towns along the Nepal tarai and in Kathmandu. "We did not see women walking around so freely either in Bangladesh or India." Adds Murtaza, "Also, we saw lots of cows and Nepali dogs were very tireless in chasing our Bangla Beetles."
Sujon Didarul Islam, to a chorus of agreement, described the climb up from Bhainse to Sim Bhanjyang past Aghor on the Thribhuban Rajpath as the most harrowing part of the journey for the flatlanders. "We just did not dare look down the side, particularly in the stretch past Tistung," recalls Ahmed Raju Kabir. "We were stunned to see lorry drivers careening around at such speed."
The unannounced leader of the team is Zubeir Moin, the tall and soft-spoken manager at Siemens Bangladesh Limited. He said, "The road was smooth all the way from Dhaka, except for the last 100km in Kathmandu. It is an easy two-and-a-half day trip. We hope more people will travel this route, especially after the Nepali officials get to know the Carnet paperwork and the bad stretch in Nepal is repaired."
"Surprisingly," said Murtaza to general agreement, "Our engines ran better on gasoline that we took on in Nepal." Hmmm. The Beetles' air-cooled engines fared very well in their life-time test on the Sim Bhanjyang climb and also the last stretch up from Naubise to Nagdhunga. "Our engines remained ice-cool," says Sujon Didarul Islam. The credit for the fine performance of the Bangla engines, says Zubeir Moin, goes to the technical skills of Abdul Rauf, the genial 52-year-old who is one of the few remaining professional mechanics in southasia trained by Volkswagen itself.
Rauf Bhai is also traveling with the team and he is asked what he thinks of the condition of the Nepali VW Beetles they have met in Kathmandu. With a friend translating his Bangla, he replies, "The cars in general are looking very good from the outside, paint is good and the interiors are cleaner than our Beetles. But denting work here is not good. However, engine synchronisation is the main problem in the machines I have seen. As a result, the vehicles sound unhealthy and cannot give enough power."
Rauf Bhai, it seems, can diagnose the health of Beetles by simply cocking an ear and casting a careful eye over the chassis-and-body of the sick machine. And he was concerned about the Nepali Beetles. Perhaps he would be willing to come for a longish stretch at the cost of the Kathmandu Beetle Owner's Club, to train Nepali mechanics and pass on the skills that he possesses as the vehicles get older and more in need of attention.
But there is no chance this time around, other than for a cursory look at the Nepali Beetles. For the Bangla Beetles have miles to go before they sleep. First, the climb up to Nagarkot, then appointments with the Bangladesh ambassador Humayun Kabir and the Nepal Tourism Board, before dashing off to Pokhara and finally down the the way they came: to Narayanghat, Kakarbhitta, Siliguri, Chyangrabandha, Bogura, Bangabandhu Setu and, finally, Dhaka.