THE TRANS-SIBERIAN Highway, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, is the third longest in the world at nearly 10,500 km. It is also, arguably, the toughest in terms of terrain and road conditions. But conquering the unknown has always given me the thrills, so I decided to take on the challenge, and drive solo from India to Russia via the Trans-Siberian Highway, a feat never attempted before. The total distance covered in this Trans-Siberian expedition from Chennai to St Petersburg was 20,500 km, covering four countries — India, Myanmar, China and Russia — in 35 days, in a made-in-India car, the Mahindra XUV500! I am thrilled that the expedition has now been recognised as a world record by the Limca Book of Records.
A trip as long and arduous as the trans-Siberian expedition means that a lot of bases need to be covered ahead of time. The first, of course, is budget. Visa arrangements, understanding border formalities and weighing different options are next. Planning the route is the most critical aspect. For this expedition, I had very little material to go by in that sense. I had to make sure that all required visas were stamped on the passport before I left India. There were other vexatious issues like paying the Carnet (an international customs document) fees, now hiked to a ridiculous Rs 1 lakh, and a bank guarantee of at least twice the original value of the car being used. This is over and above the car insurances that need to be obtained in the countries of your travel.
Mao Gate is the official entry point to Manipur, and also the trailhead of sorts for the long journey that lay ahead of me. I reached the gate at 2.30 pm on 18 May, 2016 and saw a long queue of vehicles. The policemen manning the gate informed me that all traffic had ceased for the past two days due to a bandh call. Fortunately, the bandh was lifted at midnight, and I reached the hotel in Imphal at 2.30 am — I left at 7.30 am for the Myanmar border to make the journey onwards.
I had planned to cross over into Russia from China via the Hunchun-Kraskinov border, and the most unconventional thing happened there. One is not permitted to drive a private car through the Russian side of the border, which is only meant for public transport. So, my car had to be loaded onto a truck and transported across the borders! I had a booking for an overnight stay in Mogocha, an erstwhile Gulag, a rather forbibidding location. When I reached there after a draining 870 km drive, I was told that they had no place for me. I had to drive another 600 km to reach Chita, where I finally found accommodation.
Travel exposes you to unique challenges. A couple of days later, in Novosibirsk, I had to find alternate accommodation again, when I discovered that the hotel I had booked no longer existed. In Russia, one has to drive with headlights on, even during the day. Unaccustomed to this, I sometimes forgot to turn them off after switching off the ignition. It cost me dearly in Kurgan. The battery drained overnight, as I had left the headlight on in the parking lot. Fortunately, the security guard at the hotel used jump start cables and charged my car battery from his.
Goodwill knows no boundaries. How else can I explain the kind Kyrgz food vendor in Khabarovsk who broke into Mera joota hai japani upon learning that I was from India and gave me a newly minted coin as a memory of the meeting? Or the hotel receptionist Uliana, who agreed to show me around the city of Krasnoyarsk after her duty hours?
I am often asked why I travel alone, since I have done eight of my nine car expeditions solo. There are two reasons. One is that the expeditions call for utmost discipline that others may not enjoy or withstand the hardships. It is physically and mentally demanding and, many a times, life threatening. Second, most of us spend the quality time we do get with family and colleagues. We rarely spend quality time with ourselves.
What do I expect to convey through my travel? We live in an era where people are getting increasingly polarised due to narrow beliefs and intolerance. Youngsters must travel and appreciate different cultures, habits, cuisine, and folklore so that they can build a better society. I want to prove that if a 58-year-old can do it alone, you can do it whichever way you want to.
Suresh Joseph, a former official of the Indian Railways, is a seasoned traveller.