BANGALURU :Three women travelled from India to London covering 23,800 kms in 95 days, across 17 nations, in a SUV.
It was not only the women representing Women Beyond Boundaries who won hearts as they befriended remarkable women living ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. ‘Cheti’ or Chetak, the Scorpio that carried them across saw curiousity and adulation pouring in from drivers of Ferrari, BMW and Mercedes. “What? You are driving an Indian car? Really...India makes such cars?” were what Nidhi, Sowmya and Rashmi oft heard.
Equipped with visas, guided by google maps and google translator, the journey was one of its kind.
Facing the wrath of nature in terms of landslides, floods as well as dealing with corrupt cops on the road added to the experience and “realisation that boundaries are only self drawn... both within ourselves, and outside of ourselves” in the words of Nidhi, for whom the journey was a long-time dream come true.
It all began with a deep urge in Nidhi Tiwari for a “me time” to revive her carefree spirit. She has been an outdoor educator for some time, having roamed the land on foot and jeep. One night, she was stuck in her car at 15,000 ft near Baralachalala pass on the Leh Manali road. “That night is when I decided that if I can endure this, then it was time for me to reach higher… and undertake a trans-continental drive.”
Support from family was no problem for this mother of two young boys and wife of an army man. Having just started Women Beyond. But it was not easy to find sponsors.
Nidhi scouted for like-minded travelers. Soumya Goyal and Rashmi Koppar, friends since many years, jumped at an opportunity to see the world and a threesome was formed.
The trio chose to reach Central Asia through China instead of Pakistan. And instead of Nepal they opted to go through Myanmar to reach China. From China to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland and on to the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, then Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, France and UK, the journey from Delhi to London took three months.
Right at the start the journey was delayed by four weeks due to weather conditions at the Indo-Myanmar border. It also offset all visas that had been procured.
Nidhi is all praise for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that helped them procure visas through the Indian embassies in each of the countries. “We would not have made it through Central Asia without their help.”
If driving in Russia was a test of wit, perseverance and sheet grit, Finland was a “dream country to drive in”. With roads in Russia often narrowing and passing through villages, the speed limits often saw the vehicle having to keep below a frustrating 50 kph.
Strict driving rules saw the vehicle fined for “crossing the middle white line” at midnight on the way from Volvograd to Moscow. What seemed like an end to the driving saga was quickly settled with a $200 bribe to the cops.
In contrast, Nidhi was fascinated by Finland which is the most self-regulated country when it comes to driving and traffic.
In Finland, the mid morning glare on the tar road on some stretches was so blinding that Nidhi was forced to slow down to 40kmph or slower.
“In Uzbekistan, our identity became ‘Ishanee’ and ‘Ranveer’. I had no clue who they were till we found out that they act in a popular tv serial ‘meri aashiqui hum se hi’. Everywhere people would call out ‘Ishanee..Ranveer’. In Kazakh it was Anandi of Balika Badhu! You say India and they would ask ‘you know Anandi?’’
Nidhi realized her phone with the maps was the most effective navigation device, and also works offline. Surprisingly, the connectivity was “super good”. Every time they entered a new country, first thing done was to buy a data sim to use for google maps.
Nidhi was most fascinated by the diverse landscapes they travelled across - from the tropical forests in India’s north east, flood plains in Myanmar, Tibetan plateau in China, Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, fertile Fergana valley in Uzbek, flat, barren desert in Kazakh, greener flat pastures in Russia, the conifers of Finland, the undulating meadows and autumn hued forests in Europe... “the expanse was stunning”.
In Volvograd, formerly called Stalingrad, Nidhi found herself transported to the World War era when the Germans and Russians battled it out. “I had scenes from the movie “Enemy at the Gates” replaying in my head during the entire duration that we were there.”
So also at Andijon in Uzbekistan enroute to Tashkent, history overwhelmed Nidhi again. “This is where Babur was born.”
For Nidhi, who enjoys solitude, the biggest challenge was to live in close proximity with two others! The driving she thoroughly enjoyed and was very therapeutic, she says.
The bookings at hotels had to be reworked due to delay in departure. Online bookings were made just before reaching a place. As to food, China provided lots of vegetables but in Central Asia the fare was predominantly meat. While her team mates experimented with food, for Nidhi after a while it was down to bread and fruits.
On the most common question one would ask women on a road journey, the dangers, the brave woman says the excitement she felt left no room for fear. “It’s more the risks one needs to watch out for, for example how traffic rules differ from country to country. As a driver it’s extremely important to have done the homework. Speed limits differ and can be very tricky. Vehicle wise, one has to be hands on. You can’t depend on a mechanic.”
Before one asks Nidhi ‘what next’ it is clear -- a ‘solo journey’.