Why fly when you can drive?

  • Hormazd Sorabjee
  • Updated: Jan 02, 2016 21:50 IST
(Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta)

The two right-hand-drive SUVs with Maharashtra registration plates were creating a buzz. We were, after all, in left-hand-drive Europe – Ingolstadt in Germany, to be precise. The ‘Ingolstadt to India’ stickers on the flanks of our cars said it all: we were set for a 20,000-km drive back to India, across nine countries, eight times zones and two continents.

But why drive from Germany to India when you can fly? Because, we tell ourselves: why fly when you can drive? Especially if it’s going to be an epic journey, a record of sorts.

For Indians to drive across the world and return to India on foreign plates can be tricky, especially across certain borders where the only way to communicate with officials is in sign language.

Prague, with its amazing old-world architecture, is one of the most touristy places in the world.

From Ingolstadt, we headed east towards Prague. The short 375-km stretch was the easiest bit of the journey and a good way to find a rhythm for the long days ahead. Monsoon-like thundershowers didn’t deter us from cruising on the other side of 200kmph. It’s legal in Germany, the only country in the world where roads without speed limits still exist.

There’s a special charm about Prague with its cafés, church towers, and amazing old-world architecture that makes it one of the most touristy places in the world. So the only way to photograph Prague’s famous sites without thousands of tourists getting in the way is to get there while they are still asleep. That meant hitting the Old Town Square at the crack of dawn.

With photography wrapped up by 8am, we were set for a mid-morning start for the 675km run to Warsaw. It was an uneventful run to the Polish capital; we could feel we had left Germany far behind. Highway speeds are lower here (at just 120-130kmph) and the roads aren’t as smoothly paved.

Warsaw has a nice mix of new and old architecture, with a generous sprinkling of parks and gardens. It’s the home of Polish composer Chopin and to honour him, the pedestrian crossing signs are in the form of piano keys!

We got to our hotel late at night but just in time for dinner. Our hungry eight-member team must have finished all the Polish dumplings (pierogi) in the Smaki Warszawy restaurant. They were simply delicious!

The scene got more rustic as we headed further east to the Polish border with Belarus. Traffic was sparse, the roads narrow. We often had to drive alongside farmers in horse-drawn carts.

We had become spoilt blitzing through three countries in two days, which is only possible in borderless Europe. So when we arrived at the border town of Terespol, we weren’t prepared for the excruciatingly long scrutiny of documents. On the Belarus side, the paperwork for immigration, car insurance and other permits, all in an alien language, was pretty daunting too.

It took us six hours to cross the border and when we finally did, it was past midnight but we had 390km more to go. Driving through the night, we at last reached the capital city of Minsk completely exhausted.

Driving out of Minsk, you could feel the city’s Soviet influence immediately. The architecture is Stalinist and grand buildings line the wide boulevards that lead out of the city. The highway isn’t quite as silky smooth, the cars are three generations old and women sell fresh fruits on the roadside. Fuel is cheaper in this part of the world where there’s a surplus of oil. A litre of diesel is 12,300 Belarusian rubles which sounds astronomical but that equates to just `45 per litre. In Russia, it gets even cheaper at the equivalent of `35 per litre.

Entering Moscow we felt at home. Drivers cut lanes and are oblivious to the speed limit even in construction zones. The size and grandeur of Moscow is immediately apparent with the swell of cars and people, dazzling neon lights, grandiose buildings and bridges, all brightly lit up. Of course, our first port of call in Moscow had to be the iconic Red Square where many of the big moments in Russia’s history have played out. It’s an awe-inspiring setting that rightfully deserves a spot on everyone’s travel bucket list.

Fireworks over St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow at the end of the Annual Festival of Military Bands.

Amongst the resplendent architecture all around, it was the wonderful St Basil’s Cathedral that bowled us over. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. We were also impressed by the mile-long escalators that lead deep into Moscow’s underground metro network.

As we made our way from one landmark to the next, we realised the city is quite different from the grey image of the Soviet era it’s long been associated with. There’s the usual array of cafés and pubs you’d find in any large European city and the people are just as fashionable. Oh, and the residents of Moscow also love their cars – the more expensive, the better. Not a sight you’d expect to see in the former centre of the communist world.

Magnificent Moscow had made a mark. But there was so much more ahead of us. Driving further east across the breadth of Russia, the vastness of the country hit us. The 7,000km Moscow to Ulaanbaatar leg of this epic journey was a blitzkrieg of sorts with whistle stops through interesting towns.

In Nizhny Novgorod, the Soviet era of Russia flashes through with sculptures of Lenin standing three storeys tall. Nizhny has a Kremlin as does Kazan, the next city we stopped at. We learned that Kremlin isn’t a place, it’s the name of a walled city that houses government buildings. Most Kremlins have a church but the one in Kazan also has the Qolsharif Mosque, the second largest in Europe.

The business of oil is like a cottage industry in Russia. Clusters of pumpjacks drawing oil from the ground dotted the countryside along our 550km drive to Ufa, a town that’s better known for hosting the high-profile 2015 BRICS Summit.

Heading towards Chelyabinsk, we reached the edge of Europe and it was a thrill crossing from one continent to another in a matter of seconds. There’s a pillar that marks the line which splits Russia into its European and Asian halves. Half isn’t accurate, because 75 per cent of Russia lies in Asia!

Driving for 2,000km on flat and straight roads through the Steppes felt like watching a film being played in an endless loop.

Lake Baikal in Siberia is the largest freshwater lake in the world.

The trip computer read 9,020km when we reached Lake Baikal in Siberia – our furthest point east. Germany, seven hours behind in time, seemed like a lifetime away. Lake Baikal is another example of the Russian scale of things. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world that could supply the world’s drinking water demands for 50 years!

The next day’s drive to Ulan-Ude was spent hunting down Siberian trains for photo ops. The legendary Trans-Siberian railway line – the one that connects St Petersburg in west Russia to Vladivostok in the east – is the lifeline for many cities in the region. Novosibirsk (the capital of Siberia), owes its very existence to the railway network. Back in the late 1890s, when the line was being constructed, engineers found the area where the city stands today suited to build the essential crossing over the river Ob. This little trivia made the magnificent Railway Locomotive Museum just outside the city a definite pitstop.

We got the first real taste of Asia at the Mongolian border. People were jumping out of cars and running to the immigration building to break the queue. Once through with the formalities, we got out onto public roads and into honking. It all felt like a homecoming!

The 150-km drive from the border to Ulaanbaatar was eventful. A blinding curtain of rain was followed by a hailstorm which quickly gave way to many rich and full rainbows. In the distance, the mountains looked like they were on fire. It was quite overwhelming.

The view out of the hotel window the next morning was of a city dressed in white. Snowflakes were gently falling as we started off towards Saishand. But not before we took a detour to see the Genghis Khan monument – an imposing statue of the country’s national hero seated on his horse holding a whip.

At the Genghis Khan monument, 50km outside of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, you can climb up the horse’s mane and stare Genghis in the face.

The drive to Sainshand passes through the Gobi Desert and the road is a ribbon of black cutting through the vast and desolate landscape. Sainshand is a dusty little town in the Gobi Desert with a few hotels and karaoke restaurants. About 40kms beyond was a monastery – the first sign of Buddhism that we’d come across.

The next day in sub-zero temperatures, the team set off for the Chinese border. Mongolian customs were a breeze but the Chinese were quite finicky probing the entire contents of our bags. Good thing the laundry was done the day before!

Erlianhot, the border town on the Chinese side, was like an American city with big buildings and wide roads. Stark and desolate Mongolia, where towns are just haphazard collections of houses, seemed in another world though in reality it was just 5km away. The contrast between the two countries was quite staggering.

Out of Erlianhot towards Ulanchap, the landscape is similar to Mongolia. In fact, this part of China is called Inner Mongolia. About 65 million years ago, this was home to T-Rex and family. We were told dinosaur fossils keep turning up around the Dinosaur Fairyland park, 20kms outside Erlianhot.

The Great Wall of China in Shuiguan is exactly that: the greatest man-made structure on Earth.

But for us, the highlight of the otherwise straightforward drive was passing under the arches of the Great Wall at the Badaling section in Shuiguan. The Great Wall is exactly that – the greatest man- made structure and the only one that can be seen from the moon. It is 21,000km long and the view of it snaking along the hills beyond the horizon is simply breathtaking.

The other stunning attraction is the 2,200 year Terracotta Army sculptures in Xian, our next stop. To stand and stare at 5,000 soldiers frozen in stone, complete with horses and chariots, each unique and different was a highlight of this 20,000-km drive. Seeing the giant pandas near Chengdu was also quite an experience.

And then there was the food. Everyone’s favourite was the ‘hotpot’ in which boiling chilly oil comes to the table along with raw meats, eggs and vegetables. You have to dunk the food in the oil to cook it and then dip it in the sauces before eating. Very potent and spicy, but absolutely delicious.

Ruili is where we crossed over into Myanmar and once again, the visual differences between the two countries were stark. The roads deteriorated right from the Myanmar border. While in China, most people were dressed in western clothes, the Burmese mostly wore lungis and shirts, a dressing style that hasn’t changed in decades.

Mandalay is where we took a day off. It’s an easygoing city with plenty of whitewashed chortens and gilded stupas. Here people bustle about on little rotary-geared mopeds and monks glide about serenely unperturbed by the hustle and bustle around them.

The last leg: Mandalay in Myanmar is an easygoing city with plenty of whitewashed chortens and gilded stupas. Monks, like the one here at Sandamuni Pagoda (above), glide about serenely.

After the very easy driving in China, we had our work cut out in Myanmar with dusty roads, potholes, cheeky overtaking moves and driving often in darkness with trucks ahead blowing up clouds of dust. The drive from Ruili to Mandalay was the most gruelling of the entire journey by far. This distance of 500km that would have taken us three hours in Germany, five in Russia or seven in China, took over 15 hours in Myanmar!

Myanmar’s agricultural system is still very old-world, hence we often saw farmers bent over working in fields or using an ancient plough. Cattle carts carried farmers wearing straw hats, puffing away at grass-rolled cheroots.

Kalay, the last night halt before entering India, was where we were supposed to spend just one night, but thanks to the incessant rain through the night, four bridges of the 50 on the only road to India had been washed away or destroyed. As a result, the team ended up spending 18 days in Kalay!

Finally, to enter India after the long halt in Kalay was euphoric. Even though we drove in from clean and neat Tamu in Myanmar to chaotic and dusty Moreh in India, it exuded a sense of home and belonging. There would be no more border crossings or broken bridges that would stand between us and Mumbai.

The final road mess we had to deal with was on the drive from Patna to Bodh Gaya on NH85. After Bodh Gaya, we hit the Golden Quadrilateral that was essentially the road to Mumbai past Varanasi, Agra, Delhi and Udaipur. Just outside Surat, a cop stopped us, demanding to check the Pollution Under Control Certificate, and asked us where we were coming from.

“Germany”, we told him and as we explained our trip that would complete more than 20,000km before we reached Mumbai, his jaw dropped almost to his waist.

We ended our drive with a picture at the Gateway of India. The trip computer read 20,286km and all that distance was covered without a glitch – not even a single puncture! It is a long way home from Germany. But for us, it was an epic drive with no shortcuts.

(Photos by: Paul Dewars, Kuldeep Chaudhuri and Rishad Saam Mehta)

Hormazd Sorabjee is the editor of Autocar India

From HT Brunch, January 3, 2016

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