Nobody was willing to put their money behind a crazy woman wanting to undertake a never-done-before solo drive……………Delhi to London transcontinental feat!
December 2015 had a news splashed across all leading newspapers in India- a team of three women drove from Delhi to London covering over 21,308 kilometers (13,240 miles) across 17 countries of Central Asia, Baltic region and Europe over a period of 95 days! We at Bohotraveller were of course kicked up and decided to get in touch with the gals who proved that dreams were meant to come true. When Nidhi Tiwari, the lady who was at the helm of this expedition and drove the entire stretch of the said 21,038 kilometers responded positively to our request for an interview, we literally pounced at the opportunity to get a close view of the trip from the lady herself!
Over the course of this interview, we discovered that this drive was much more than a transcontinental trip. It was triumph of the human spirit and an endeavor to provide a platform for women empowerment and related issues. It is a matter of pride to have such ladies amidst us who conquer what many consider impossible. Nidhi and her other two team mates have opened gates for other women to scale heights and endure the difficulties of tough terrain while riding the beast. So here is her interview that gives you a sneak peek into her journey that is truly inspirational!
1. It is a celebrity wave for you now…..how does it feel? Were you expecting such a huge response?
No, not at all! In fact it completely blew me off. I have been an outdoor leader and driver for many years and have undertaken many such maiden trips. But this one seems to have stolen the show entirely. The response has been massive. I never expected it because for me it was always just a dream drive…a very personal pursuit.
2. So we saw your “Women Beyond Boundaries” group, tell us a little more about it.
Women Beyond Boundaries is a community for women drivers that I along with a dear friend Smita M Rajaram founded in 2015. We want to empower women to undertake difficult drives that span over long distances, tough terrain, high altitude areas etc. Having said that, it’s not just a driving club, through these drives we intend to reach out to women living in far flung areas in an effort to empower them in ways they find meaningful and sustainable…this could be either through services or goods that may be delivered during the drives. This drive was Women Beyond Boundaries maiden journey.
3. Tell us a little about your love for traveling?
I am basically a driver at heart. I love zooming away on my jeep every now and then. I have been driving long distances and in high altitude areas for nearly 12 years now. Right from my childhood I have been an outdoor person..having gone on my first Himalayan expedition at the age of 11!
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4. How do the wife and mother in you cope with the passion for traveling?
When I got married and had my children, this outdoor part of me still called out and needed to be cared for. Though my children have come with me on many hikes, I felt if I had to go out every weekend (like I had done for most parts of my life), I had to find a medium where the kids could come along. A close friend who I had known for over 10 years introduced me to jeep. Together we built a jeep - a Mahindra classic. We used to spend days in a garage with the mechanics, understanding the parts, fixtures, sourcing what I needed from the junk yard (couldn’t afford new ones) etc. We used to take the vehicle out on weekends. The premise of off-roads trips is to test the machine and self. To drive on very difficult terrain – sand, slush, rock, through water etc…in an effort to test and prove how wonderful these machines really are and also your own driving skills to be able to handle such a gorgeous machine.
5. Awesome! It is impressive that you know your wheels inside out! Tell us more.
The love for jeeps and my association with them kept growing further over the years. My confidence as a driver grew manifold. I started taking up long distance drives across the country. I belong to Bangalore, but my husband comes from Uttarakhand and being an Army Man he has mainly had postings in the North. So Bangalore – Delhi is a much frequented route for us. I started driving on this road and soon driving down became a norm in the family. Then came the mountains and I headed for Ladakh for the first time in 2007. In those days driving to Ladakh wasn’t that common. I thoroughly enjoyed it and then my addiction to drive, explore off-road tracks in high altitude areas began. After that nearly every single year, I have driven to the mountains in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh.
6. And what gave you the confidence to take this horrendously difficult drive?
In 2014, while on a similar road trip, I happened to get stuck at Baralacha la…which is at 15600 ft on the Leh – Manali road. The road hadn’t opened yet and mine was the first vehicle on the day the road was cleared. I tried driving through, but since it was already late evening the water on the road froze creating a sheet of ice. The tyre slipped and before I knew it, I was stuck. I then spent the whole night in the car in very very cold conditions nearing sub zero temperatures. But beautiful snow capped peaks all around and star studded sky were my companions....what a splendid night it was! I kept starting the car every 1 hour since I was unsure how it would respond to sub zero temperatures being a diesel engine. It was on that night that I decided that I was a ready to take on my dream journey - driving transcontinental!
7. How did the Delhi to London trip happen?
Early this year, I started working on it. I did a lot of route research and was very clear that it would be a solo journey. I worked day and night for the next 6 months till we were flagged off. Around this time, I happened to share my plan with my close friend Smita Mazumdar Rajaram during one of our evening conversations about women and empowerment. We discussed how and why most women would not even consider undertaking a similar journey on their own even if they silently in some corner of their heart wanted to.
8. That is true. What do you think are the main barriers when it comes to women driving on a high altitude, rough terrain?
I feel there are two reasons – a. skill deficit and b. lack of opportunity to hone skills for women drivers. Skill deficit in terms of handling the machine and understanding it. Opportunity in the sense that just getting to drive long distances for women (cannot generalize) in most families just does not happen even if women might be driving to work and extensively in the city. If the family is to go on a holiday or undertake any such drive it is a given that the man will do maximum driving. To be a long distance driver one needs endurance and the ability to drive continuously which needs stamina and that comes with exposure.
9. You gals set out to set an example for such women who would love to drive long distance but cannot because of the aforementioned factors?
Well, I guess the intent was to avow that given the right opportunity and skill, women drivers were as capable to take on such daunting drives. Hence WBB decided to undertake this drive. Smita, co-founder, WBB being a professional in the development sector pointed at the need to extend the platform for empowerment that WBB had created beyond urban women. If women drivers are empowered to drive on difficult terrain then why not reach out to women in far flung areas as a team and deliver goods or services. So it is empowerment on both ends. And that’s how Women Beyond Boundaries was born. And what better way to announce its arrival than a road journey of this scale and magnitude being attempted by a woman driver and an all women crew. So this drive from Delhi to London has been WBB’s maiden road journey.
10. How does one land a sponsorship!?
Coming back to prep for the journey, from the very beginning, I knew that I had no money to undertake a journey like this without a sponsor. I went and knocked on many many doors. Most people would hear me out and then either dismiss this as an impractical or too risky an attempt. At this point, I still wanted to undertake this as a solo journey. But finally Mahindra First Choice Wheels were the first people to even say “let’s consider it. May be there is a possibility….but let’s see”. At this point, it was still to be a solo journey. They got back to me with expected concerns like risk, support etc but were at least open to the idea. And I am very grateful to them for that.
11. How did the trip become a three member trip as against the intended solo one?
I worked to mitigate concerns raised by our sponsors. WBB then warmed up to the idea of finding additional participants for the trip. When the word was being spread, I happened to share this with Soumya and Rashmi whom I have known for many years. They jumped at the idea and were very excited to be part of this trip. And that is how it ended up becoming 3 people in the car while I remained the sole driver..
12. Why Delhi to London?
When people ask me why Delhi to London, my only naïve answer is that may be London was the farthest I could think of. A route that qualified as Transcontinental, had a port to ship the vehicle back and was historic and closely associated with our land.
13. Give an insight into your itinerary of the journey?
In order to reach London, the trail goes through Central Asia- Kyrgyzstan being the first country. To get there, you could either go through Pakistan or China. The former was ruled out and as for China you could reach there only through Nepal or Myanmar. Originally I had planned to go through Nepal. But then the earthquake took place and this was ruled out as well. So Myanmar was the only option. Further from Kyrgyz, I wanted to head straight north and reach Russia. You could either directly go through Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan which was a slightly longer route. But from history lessons, I was always fascinated by Uzbekistan since that’s the land from where the Moghuls came. So I decided to include it. From there we transited through the South-Western part of Kazakh to enter Russia at Volvograd.
Now from Russia, you could take many routes to enter Europe – throughUkraine, Belarus, Latvia, Finland etc. Ukraine visas are difficult to get and I wasn’t sure of Belarus but Finland looked exciting. In fact it wasn’t even on the route originally and was included mid way into the trip. I felt when one has driven all the way up to Moscow, another 1500 Kms (932 miles) to Lapland, which falls in the Arctic zone won’t hurt. Also there was a desire to see the Northern lights. Further, in the journey from Finland, you could either take a route though the Nordic or the Baltic States. I chose the Baltic States as most of them fell under the Shengen visa which meant lesser visas to apply for. And then it was one straight traverse through to Calais in France and then crossing the English Channel to Dover and enter UK.
14. What exactly is the role of a sponsor? Were they responsible for getting Visas for you?
No, not at all. I was responsible for planning the whole thing. Let me give you a bit of backdrop regarding sponsors:
Getting a sponsor was a huge challenge. It was very tough to convince people that one could do it. The odds were against me because a. I was a woman, b. this kind of a drive had never been done before; c. a woman’s driving skills are steeped in prejudice. The perception is very poor and most people feel it is impossible, d. the physical safety aspect. And to top it all, I wanted to do it alone!
But once Mahindra First Choice showed interest it brought some relief. But then the next leg involved the government agencies and ministries. I feel support from the Ministry of External Affairs is critical as it would be the backbone of rescue if any eventuality takes place. I roamed the power corridors for some weeks till the Ministry for Youth Affairs came on board to recognize and support it with a nominal grant and Ministry of External Affairs came forth to help with the visa process. So Mahindra First Choice Wheels came in as lead sponsor. As for the participants, they were to raise money on their own to support their participation or pay themselves. WBB, being a new platform could only do so much and put the framework in place and take care of all vehicle and vehicle related costs including fuel.
15. What about Visas? How much of a struggle was that?
Regarding visas, I went from one embassy to another applying for visas and explaining my case. Typically visas are issued based on tacit documentation – air tickets, hotel bookings etc but here, both of these were not possible. So I had to write lengthy explanations, meet visa officers personally and explain the intent. In fact, to be honest no visa agent wanted to take this up, so I got into it personally.
16. Were there any apprehensions or fear before you girls started or it was all excitement and adrenaline?
Like I have said before, when I started planning this, it was apprehension galore. But that would be true of any first-of-its-kind journey and I guess that’s what excited me. From getting a sponsor to getting visas and then planning phases was very stressful. But that’s when self-belief comes into the picture and all that matters is how badly you want to do a journey like this.
17. You all travelled continents with varying weather, road conditions……what were the preparations did you do in terms of packing as well as your own physical fitness?
I cannot say I did anything special as far as physical fitness was concerned but yes, basic level of physical fitness to endure breakdowns etc. has to be there. Packing wise, one had to prepare for the cold conditions.
More than anything else, I prepped maximum for the vehicle. All spares had to be carried. All contingencies had to be planned for. Working with the car is something I learnt first…at the start of my driving career when I built a jeep along with a friend of mine from scratch. I enjoy being hands-on and I guess the confidence to undertake difficult drives stems from the fact that I can work with the vehicle if need be and manage to pull through if I get stuck en route.
18. Did all the three of you drive?
I was the single driver for the entire route. While both Soumya and Rashmi drive, they aren’t long-distance drivers and haven’t undertaken such strenuous and challenging drives. In fact this was my idea and I always wanted to do it solo. But like they say, one had to compromise! Nobody was willing to put their money behind a crazy woman wanting to undertake a never-done-before solo drive. So it was decided that I had to take 2 people along to reduce the risk –“in the eyes of the world” – so to speak!
19. What was the biggest challenge for you while taking this long journey especially because it was three women travelling all alone?
Personally, believe it or not, the biggest challenge was perhaps just the fact that I was travelling with people and not alone! I have undertaken most of my difficult drives by myself - solo. Three women was a bigger challenge than the journey itself. The rest of the challenges were easier to overcome – communication – we used Google translator throughout; for navigation – we used Google maps (Garmin GPS did not work in some countries); Road rules in each country – it was a matter of getting used to them; nature’s fury led to quite an upheaval given that it caused to 4 week delay, but one could do nothing else but endure. In fact I stayed on at Moreh with the vehicle, while the other two had the luxury of going back to Bangalore to be with their families. It was a mission to reach London after all....and so on.
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20. Three women together on such a long journey…….any disagreements, tempers…? How did you deal with it?
Of course there were many disagreements and it would be unnatural if there weren’t any. But as adults you deal with it in a certain manner. I have known Soumya & Rashmi for many years. But this was the first time that we spent so much time in close proximity. I truly believe that even had it been anybody else, the dynamics would have played out similarly…simply because we are three different people. On a journey like this, you are able to observe the nature of the person very closely. This gives new insights and helps understand the person better. It also helps deal with the person better is what I feel.
21. Have the relationship dynamics changed after this trip? How?
Yes – I guess somewhere on the road I realized that each of us had a different reason for being on the journey. For me, it was a mission- a very personal pursuit I had been dreaming of while living, sleeping and eating for many years. But for them it was the excitement of a great trip I guess. Heterogeneity (in terms of why each one was there) no doubt helps, but congruence is as important. I have learnt some very valuable lessons for myself – both as a person – and as somebody who puts together an expedition of this magnitude and scale. It has given me insights about how a team must be chosen, what skill sets will help and assist me. Don’t get me wrong, this by no means suggests that Soumya and Rashmi did not make good travel mates while on the road. These are just some realizations about human dynamics. But maiden journeys like this one are not holidays and therefore do not offer the comfort whether physically, emotionally or directionally.
22. Share some memorable moments or times that are going to be part you forever….
Over this drive, I had a lot of time to introspect and to look within. One thing I realized that even the smallest of things brought me so much of joy! For example- the sunset. Each day when I would drive during dusk, it was blissful. The changing colours in the sky – I loved it, reveled and looked forward to seeing it day after day. It was brilliant.
23. So tell us your favorite country and people from this journey?
Finland for sure! I loved it – such few people, empty roads, very self-regulated driving, no corrupt cops and very well marked roads. And with that came the conifers and other trees in autumn colours, green meadows dotted with homesteads, and the people were very friendly. It was a very pleasant experience, especially after Russia. If I could, I would have liked to stay at Rovaneimi in Finland longer and waited to see the northern lights. But that’s reason to go back J. Will surely do that!
In terms of just people, I found interacting with Uzbeks very interesting – culturally very similar to the kind of people we are..loud, family oriented, helpful, surround themselves with food etc.
24. What next? Any travel plans that you might be having for the next year.
As mentioned earlier too, this was WBB’s maiden drive. The maiden journey announced the formation of such a unique platform and more importantly provided a huge amount of affirmation about women and their ability to drive long distances. From the driving stand point, it has successfully portrayed the spirit behind WBB. With respect to the social connect, there is a lot more work to be done.
Women Beyond Boundaries would like women drivers to own the long-distance, high-altitude, off-road driving space. As we know, this will not only mean learning the ropes (both with respect to driving acumen and vehicle maintenance), but also embarking on drives to demonstrate and fine-tune these skills.
Having said that I would like to emphasize on one important fact - Women Beyond Boundaries is not just a ‘driving club’. The intent is to use driving as a medium and reach out to women in difficult-to-reach, far flung areas in order to deliver goods or services. Hence, rest assured that our upcoming missions will strive to achieve this.
25. Any words for those who want to join you gals at WBB? And we are sure….there are many!
We have been receiving many requests – women expressing their desire to join our upcoming drives. But we believe that the start point to a road journey is ‘how well you know your vehicle’. So starting this month, we are announcing our first basic “Know your Car” workshop in Delhi on 23rd Jan 2016 at Auto Garage, Noida. This basic workshop will focus on the tires – recognizing wear and tear, changing tires (do’s and don’ts), looking out for warning signs on the road related to tires etc. It’s basically all about tires!
I, along with Amandeep Ahluwalia (our dear friend and ace rally driver) will lead this workshop. We intend to have many more such in many weeks to come. Post a few such workshops we intend to take up drives across UP, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand for a start. All drives are to include either long distance or high altitude or tough terrain component – lined with a clear social intent.
Our heartfelt thanks to Nidhi for sharing her EPIC journey with us and our fellow travel enthusiasts. You can find more inspiration and get in touch with her or join the commendable cause of women empowerment on her group www.womenbeyondboundaries.com
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