CHANDAN LAHIRI – THE UNSTOPPABLE:
The seed to pursue a career in adventure travel was perhaps sown in Chandan Lahiri’s mind when he used to accompany his father General Lahiri, an Indian Army officer to perilous places as a teenager.
That passion for the outdoors which was burning inside him was reinforced when he happened to work on an ad campaign involving adventure sports during his days as a full-time advertising professional. That’s how ‘Out There Adventurers’ was born, followed by ‘OTA Survival School’ to impart lessons on survival in the wilderness.
Chandan’s tales of outlandish travel experiences are plenty and unbelievably mind boggling. From setting world records on the highest motorable passes in Ladakh, a bike trip around India leading to a broken collar bone and a shattered knee to even almost getting killed by the Naxals and paddling across the length of the Ganga from Haridwar to Kolkata, he’s done what one can hardly even imagine!
Settled in Delhi, married with two young daughters and a Buddhist by choice, Chandan does acknowledge his age and the limits his body can endure but he refuses to slow down till his breath lasts. All for the great outdoors that call him time and time again.
Here are excerpts from my chat with Chandan. Read on to know more about his experiences in his own words and about the man himself. You may very well call him the real ‘Khatron Ke Khiladi’!
INFLUENCE OF A ‘RAMBO’ DAD!
“My father went on to become a Commandant of the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School that trains soldiers in the art and science of survival, jungle warfare, counter insurgency and guerrilla tactics. Since his death from cancer in 1996 I have dedicated my endeavours to his memory.”
Left: Chandan with his father General Lahiri in 1984. Right: General Lahiri
He was in the Indian Army, an Infantry officer and a Gorkha. The time I was born in 1962 was also when he was sent to Fort Bragg, California to train as a Ranger and Green Beret (remember Rambo?). He then came back to start the Commando Wing of the Indian Army.
I have accompanied him through leech infested jungles of the Northeast when the troops were in training. Those are some of my fondest memories and I suspect what planted the seed in me of getting into adventure and survivalism.
Giving up on polished shoes for hiking boots
“I am proud to say that I put Marsimik La on the map, a pass no one apart from a few Army officers who had served in the region knew about. Google did not turn up a single hit when we were there.”
During a particular advertising campaign, I came face to face with adventure sports. I fell in love. The campaign went through like a raft cutting through the churning waters of the rapids on the Ganges, and I tumbled hook, line and sinker into what I believed was my calling.
On millennium night, I was sitting on the beach listening to the waves, the spray slapping against my feet, revelling at the gazillion stars in the night sky, drunk out of my mind, when I decided that I would put in my papers Monday morning, which is what I did!
I started ‘Out There Adventurers’ and ended up taking people rafting on the Ganges and the Sutlej, and earned two world records in endurance motorcycling.
I led the first motorcycle team to ride from Tso Moriri to Pang through uncharted geography. I led a team to Marsimik La, (then) the world’s highest road for a world record. Ladakh became an annual pilgrimage for me and I ended up escorting quite a few people to that wonderful piece of geography.
I do not regret my decision to give up a 9-to-5, tie-and-polished-shoes job to don shorts, T-shirt and hiking boots. Given a choice I would make the same decision all over again.
Rising from the ashes like a Phoenix!
“The night was dark, the road was black as was the cow, and the contact broke my collar bone, a couple of ribs and smashed my knee. My doctors wondered if I would ever walk again.”
A friend of mine from the US had come down and the two of us took a motorcycling trip around Rajasthan. It was a wonderful trip and on the home stretch from Jhunjhunun to Delhi, I had an unfortunate encounter with a bovine who decided to cross the road at just the wrong time. I was bedridden for almost a year, lived with a limp for almost a decade before I got a total knee replacement surgery.
This meant that extreme adventures went out of the window. I wanted to prove them wrong and put forth three targets ahead of me: Ride a motorcycle again, visit Ladakh again and visit my teacher in McLeodganj.
Fortunately ended up accomplishing all three goals, though I do not ride a motorcycle now.
The start of the survival school
“The ‘OTA Survival School’ continues to be the only civilian facility imparting training to individuals on wilderness survival.”
The outdoors still called and adventure remained in my veins. I had been flirting with survival training for a few years, particularly high altitude. And that is when OTA Survival School was formally born.
I call attitude, shelter, fire, water, food, signalling, navigation and first aid, the eight essentials of survival. My training has been self-accomplished through hours of research, practice and experimentation. I have had offers from organisations like the ‘Armed Forces’ and the ‘National Disaster Response Force’ who have expressed interest in getting their people trained in the curriculum developed by OTA Survival School.
The audacious adventures into the unknown!
“Many of the expeditions I design and develop are downright crazy, not something that people would normally embark on.”
For me, each journey is an experience into the unknown. I like to push the limits, to see how far I can go. Consequently, they are replete with many memories.
The Motorbike Ride Across the Country & Coffee with Naxals
“People had warned us that if we rode through the forested Naxal area after dusk, we would be assumed to be security forces and shot at.”
I remember one evening when a friend of mine had come over for a drink. After more than a few had slithered down the throat, talk veered towards motorbiking. Why don’t we ride all over the country? Remember, I had not ridden a motorcycle for many years prior to this conversation, but that did not deter me in any way. In a week or so, a few more people hopped on board and we spent the next few months travelling all across the country. Money was tight and we did not see the inside of a hotel room for the entire trip. Most days we stopped at a dhaba for dinner, slept there and rode again the next morning. And we tried to never travel on National Highways which was a great way to see the interiors of the country and meet many wonderful people.
During this journey, one of my most enduring memories were formed. Deep inside Naxal territory, on the border between Chhatisgarh and Orissa, in Bastar, we were accosted by Naxals. We were on Royal Enfield motorcycles and the only people who rode them were the Police. We were followed by Naxals for the next couple of days, our luggage was scrutinised when we had gone for a meal, interrogated by people, and finally they realised we were legit adventurers. We even shared a cup of coffee with them after the mistrust faded away. But those initial few hours were scary.
The Survival Challenge – 30 Days series
“After the first few days, hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, fatigue, all combine to play tricks on the mind when the thought of giving up looms larger and larger.”
30 Days is a series wherein I embed myself in a situation and showcase the various tips and tricks to overcome the difficulties that might arise in wilderness. I plan to extend this series to urban emergencies through ‘30 days stuck in a basement’, to an open water scenario through ‘30 days floating in a life raft’, etc. This provides me with an opportunity to be alone and in the wilderness, and talk about survival to a larger audience with the films produced.
Above: Pictures from the 30 Day survival course in Padampuri forest.
Above: Pictures from 30 Days of being cast-away off the Bay of Bengal near Chilika Lagoon in Orissa.
In a real- life situation, people might just give up and die because they cannot face the mental and physical hardships. In a simulated situation they want to give up and go home, satisfied with the experience gained. Those who endure become stronger individuals, which is the primary goal of the survival courses.
Watch the documentary 30 Days in Wilderness.
Canoeing Across the Ganga from Haridwar to Calcutta: The Slow Boat series
“I deserve no accolades that I am receiving – ‘Mahapurush or Jalpurush’. I must be crazy to embark on this mission of canoeing solo on the mighty Ganges. There must a reason why no one wants to volunteer along with me.”
I had got myself an inflatable canoe, and had paddled it across a few lakes in Uttarakhand. That was becoming boring and I wanted to up the ante. The Ganges is India’s holiest rivers and one of the longest in the world. I decided to paddle down the Ganges from Haridwar to Calcutta to highlight and raise awareness of the pollution in this holy river. I did that over about three months, in two stages. It was a wonderful experience. A lot of villagers, babas and panditjis opened their homes for me to sleep and offered me food. They became like family.
I was actually quite surprised at the lack of pollution on the river itself. I was taking measurements all along my journey and nowhere did the numbers really spike. It was on her banks that I found a remarkable amount of pollution, particularly plastic, mostly around the larger cities. One source of pollution is the improper disposal of dead bodies. Proper cremation will certainly reduce this to a large extent.
The Yamuna and the Brahmaputra are the next two rivers that are in my immediate radar.
Watch the documentary A Slow Boat Down the Ganges.
When Ladakh was Just Being ‘Discovered’: Julay, Ladakh
“Riding at over 15,000 feet, on bikes that were not tuned to those altitudes, struggling to breathe the rarified air, shivering in the cold even during the day and finding roads that were not listed on any map, was electrifying.”
In 2003, Ladakh was still being “discovered”. It sounded exotic enough to plan a ride there since so little was known about the journey and anything at all we knew was smoked in intrigue and adventure. We were ten of us from all parts of the country who would make the journey.
One midnight we started our bikes and headed off into an unknown land, over uncertain terrain. The journey was absolutely marvelous, nothing any of us had ever experienced before.
It was during this journey that we became the first riders to cut a path from Tso Moriri to Pang. A distance of some sixty clicks took us the entire day.
The First World Record
“I was not acclimated enough to spend a night at high altitude (nearly 16,000 feet), and I did not have a tent, just a sleeping bag. I tucked inside, took a last look at the starry night sky hoping I would get the opportunity to see it again tomorrow and drifted off to sleep.”
I was in the process of attempting to cross as many of the highest passes as I could in a span of 24 hours in Ladakh, solo. I started in Leh at midnight and headed off into the darkness towards Khardung La and reached around 3am. It was so cold that my fingers had stopped working. I carried on to Chang La and then Tanglang La. It was getting dark and I wanted to push across Baralacha La, to hopefully Keylong to end the effort.
I stopped for a cup of tea at a dhaba just before the climb to Baralacha La began past 8 in the night. A few kilometers ahead of Baralacha La, my bike sputtered and gave up. I decided to spend the night where I was in my sleeping bag, not that I had any choice. I had a restful sleep. I was tired and I had resigned to my destiny. I slept and woke up the next morning much to my surprise. Somehow the bike managed to start and over the next 100 odd kilometers, managed to sputter its way to Keylong where I got it repaired and rode back to Delhi.
I had covered three of the highest passes in 24 hours and that was a new record.
My Second World Record
“The bikes were struggling through the deep sand and sheer incline and somehow Marsimik La allowed us to reach it.”
Some of my friends heard of my world record ride and wanted to recreate that as a group. Six of us bikers got together on spanking new bikes sponsored by TVS Motorcycles and rode off. The aim was to cover five of the world’s highest passes in 24 hours – Khardung La, Tanglang La, Wari La, Chang La and Marsimik La. I had heard of a pass in Ladakh that was supposed to be higher than Khardung La. It took me almost six months to only figure out what the pass was and where, and then to get permits to travel to it.
We started from Pang at midnight, crossed Chang La at day break and tackled the mighty Marsimik La. There was just a dirt track for more than fifty clicks and it was steep. We were running short on time and decided to drop Wari La from the list and head for Khardung La. We managed to cover the four passes about half an hour short of twenty fours.
Taking care of the planet while we travel
“The climate is changing. It has changed in the past and it will lead to catastrophic and apocalyptic events in the future. We are sacrificing the future of the planet in our need and greed of faster development.”
Even the remotest locations are littered with empty packets of chips and water bottles. Why can’t we carry them back? This is something that is lacking in our collective DNA, probably because we are so used to the hired help.
“We are essentially shameless people, and it will take a long time to become civilized citizens or travellers.”
This is criminal and a whole lot of awareness needs to be done about this. Maybe if a few responsible travelers took upon themselves to clean the garbage left by others, they could instil some sense of shame.
Not age or courage, ‘craziness’ is the ingredient!
“If I were not “crazy” why would I sacrifice the comfort of a home to attract painful blisters, or sleep on the sand, or go without food, or live without the certainty of what the next bend of the river will present?“
I do not know about “courage” but it does require a certain amount of craziness in the six inches between the ears.
“Do not live your life with the thought, “I could have …” Live it. Let people call you crazy. When the day comes, you will die with a spring in your step, a song in your heart and a smile on your lips that no one probably understands.”
I will continue to do things I want to do without care about whether other people my age are doing them or not. Whether “society” says I should or not.
“We will all die one day. The trick is to live every day till that final day arrives.”
Why would anyone stop doing anything just because a certain threshold has been reached? Can I run a 100-meter dash like I used to as a teenager? No, I cannot. But I can do other things that I know my body can endure.No, I do not plan to slow down just yet.
“If the mind is in the right place, it can overcome a lot of physical limitations.”
I am not the best example to follow as far as health and fitness are concerned. What I lack on that front, I make up for it with dollops of attitude and a whole lot of mojo. Having said that I agree that health and fitness are important and if it can be added to the right mental attitude, a whole lot of new possibilities open up.
THE Indian mindset on adventure travel
“We are still in the phase of growing out of our colonial mindset, we still believe we are subjugated and are trying to step into the big boots of mental independence.”
Not just risky adventures, but almost anything that can be remotely adventurous is discouraged in India. We keep hearing about weekend holidays in the West where entire families go out into the woods, hike, fish, camp, mountain bike etc. Not so in India. We are too used to staying in hotels and visiting malls. This is unfortunate.
In cities we see the homeless living under tarpaulin sheets and cooking by the roadside. Indulging in adventurous activities and sleeping in a tent, reminds us of these unfortunate people. This is a cultural issue and will take a few more decades to change.
As far as age is concerned, we continue to live on in the present, with no purpose in life, apart from the “knowledge” that it is good to retire at 50. The fact that we still have most of our lives ahead of us is something that is lost on most people.
THE FAMILY THAT WAITS AT HOME
“I do not know how I would have reacted had the roles been reversed, but I have my life to live.”
My kind of life is difficult to understand. My wife or daughters do not always understand why I do what I do. They have never discouraged me but had I not done what I do, they would probably be breathing a sigh of relief. I imagine it is difficult for them to wait for that phone call every other day from some God forsaken place in the world with the news that I am still alive and well. Though I would be happier had I got a more wholehearted support from the family, or even maybe their participation, I know where they are coming from and do not grudge them their feelings.
LOTS MORE TO ACHIEVE
Slow Boat Around Sri Lanka & India’s Coastline
A slow boat circumventing Sri Lanka is on my list. Another ambitious plan is the ‘Odyssea’ expedition wherein I plan to paddle along the Indian coastline, from Koteshwar in Gujarat to Calcutta in West Bengal. A journey of almost 6,000 Kilometers. It is likely to take me about six months. This one is as audacious as it gets but will give me an opportunity to do something truly incredible and also to experience India and its changing colours, people, food, clothes, languages, music all along her coastline.
Paddling on the World’s Longest Rivers: 30 Rivers Project
While thinking of paddling a slow boat, I became even more audacious. Why not paddle some of the longest rivers in the world, each longer than 2,000 km?
I doubt if I will be able to complete the ’30 Rivers Project’ due primarily to the lack of time and resources, but I will try and complete as many as possible. My average paddling distance per day is between 40 and 50 Kilometers. For thirty rivers, that translates to 1,800 days and five years, paddling back to back, every day. I would love to give it a shot though, and start with the Volga in Russia and the Amazon in South America.
By the way, the Ganges is one of the thirty rivers, so I only have 29 more rivers to go!!!
Horseback Journey Across Mongolia
My kind of travel tends to be extreme in nature that can be very taxing mentally and physically. For instance, I am planning a 6-month long horseback safari all around Mongolia. Hunger, thirst, rain, cold, injuries are expected to be a part of the course. I do not know of anyone who can (a) find six months to spare, (b) endure the hardships that the journey entails, and (c) pay me for the privilege. However, if there is someone as crazy as me, they are more than welcome to contact me and we can take it from there.
Row Boat Across the Atlantic
I am also developing an expedition to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a row boat. This, before I turn 75!!! I doubt if I will find people to row with me, hence the plan currently is to do it solo. However, if I find like-minded crazies, I can consider a team.
Learn Microlight Flying
“Here lies a man who lived life like he defined it.”
I do not think anyone will remember me. But if I want something written on my headstone, this is what it would be – Here lies a man who lived life like he defined it.
Apart from living his life on the edge and attempting to tick off every dream, no matter how daunting, Chandan Lahiri is also a writer and an entrepreneur. He has authored a ‘Wilderness Survival Handbook’ which has been very well received around the world. In addition to his ventures in adventure travel and survival, Chandan has also recently started his e-commerce store called Matlock Island for t-shirts, coasters and lots more.
If you’re brave and passionate enough to join Chandan for one of his dare devil adventures or would like to participate in a course, do get in touch on the OTA Survival School Facebook page.