On Cloud Nine

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From Munich to Mumbai in 58 days

WHEN I FLEW to Munich in a passenger plane, I had no return ticket. That was because I had finally chased and caught up with a dream—to do a road trip that stretches across months, continents and time zones. At the Munich Airport immigration check, the inspector was so incredulous about the fact that I was driving back that he called his supervisor and other colleagues to hear me describe my plan. Some of them were shaking their head in disbelief, so I then showed them whatever hotel bookings I had all the way from Munich to Mandalay. After that they all shook my hand and wished me a safe drive.

The next day I cleared my car—an Audi Q7 that had been shipped in on a Lufthansa cargo plane—from Munich customs and drove straight to Ingolstadt that was about 80 km away. Ingolstadt is the home of Audi and while I was there I spent two days having the car kitted out with a few spares and a fine toothcomb service to ensure everything was shipshape for my long drive home. My car with its Maharashtra number plate attracted a lot of attention, especially since it was a right-hand drive and had the Indian flag stickered on it. A few people even came up to me and asked me about the route I had planned and if I would find fuel all along the route.

The route was part of the old Silk Route across Eastern Europe, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, China and Burma to enter India through the Northeast and then to my home in Mumbai. Driving across Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland was a breeze, even with a right-hand drive car, since the traffic is sparse.

Prague was pretty as ever with its old buildings and cobbled streets. And since I was very keen on getting a picture of my car in front of its most popular sight— the Astronomical Clock in the centre of the pedestrian old town square—I followed a catering truck into the square at dawn, the only time when cars are allowed there. And then I hung around till the daylight was strong and got my pictures and got out before the cops arrived. Warsaw, Poland’s capital, was where I had my first traffic jam—a melee of trams, buses and cars as I arrived there right in the middle of the evening rush hour. The city was completely destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt to original spec, so while the old town square looks old, it is actually only about 60 years old.

My adventures began in earnest on day three when I was driving towards the Polish-Belarusian border. The landscape had already turned rural in its houses and people who wore tweeds. Horse-carts started to appear, as did farmers on cycles leading a healthy cow back from grazing. The border was my first manned crossing between two countries. Since Belarus in not a part of the Schengen, my car and I needed a visa and permit. I spoke neither Polish nor Belarusian and the guards and customs officers didn’t speak much English. To this confusing situation was added a car registered in far-away India. “Ah, Slumdog Millionaire,” one guard quipped, giving out his entire understanding of India.

I drove through the dinosaur parks of Inner Mongolia to arrive at the Great Wall, which called for another picture of the car in front of a wonder of the world

They couldn’t quite believe I was actually driving to India 18,500 km away, leading to lost-in-translation moments and reams of red tape. It took me about eight hours to convince them and finally with proper stamps on the pages of my passport and car documents, I drove into the country well past midnight and got to Minsk the capital at 5 am. But I was thankful that there would be no more border crossings from here all the way to Mongolia because even though you need a separate visa for Russia, the check at the Belarus-Russia border is only cursory.

There was just one rookie guard at the border and when I handed him my car’s laminated international insurance, he held it upside down and pretended to read it carefully. I waited for about 45 seconds before plucking it out of his hands, turning it the right side up and then handing it back. He went red in the face, handed it back to me and impatiently motioned me to move on as if he had many other things to do.

In Moscow I wanted to take a picture of my Maharashtra-registered car with the St Basil’s Cathedral. For this I cheekily did a quick U-turn on the bridge behind St Basil’s, thinking if Jason Bourne could do it in The Bourne Supremacy so could I, but then two police cars chased me down and since I wasn’t as good as Bourne in incapacitating armed police officers, I stopped, apologised and meekly paid the 5,000 rubles bribe they demanded.

Driving across Russia was like driving over a land whose fabric has been stitched together by the threads of so many cultures woven across centuries in time. Moscow was bright and bold with brands shouting out at me from neon-lit hoardings. Flashy cars and beautiful blondes were everywhere. But it was beyond Moscow as I headed further east into the huge vastness that was the former USSR that I was struck at how much pride they take in their past. Communism may have collapsed but Lenin still stood tall in black granite statues with fresh flowers at his feet.

I headed east towards Siberia past cities and towns like Kazan, the capital of the Tartars. At Bashkortostan I often found horsemeat on the menu. Near a little town outside Ufa, when I stopped to take some photographs, little kids ran out to see a stranger and his strange car, their clothes mostly hand-me-downs from the 70s, and after them came the grandparents, one of whom was chanting Seeta Aur Geeta. Apparently that Bollywood movie was quite a hit in these parts.

Then there was that one evening in Divnogorsk when there was a wedding going on at the hotel where we were staying. The party had gone long into the evening and way down the vodka cask when we arrived and we were almost unwittingly invited to gate crash. A heavily pregnant bride went into labour 20 minutes after the ‘I do’, and since no one from the groom’s grandmother to the bride’s barely legal bridesmaid was fit to drive after the copious amount of vodka consumed, I had to drive her to the emergency room. There in the waiting room while she was venting out her labour pains at the top of her voice, the marriage party continued with celebratory vodka shots.

Autumn was giving way to winter and Siberia gave me my most picture- postcard moments. Since the roads were mostly single lane, I had to rely on my passenger to call out when it was safe to overtake a truck in the face of oncoming traffic on the trans-Siberian highway.

I zipped past the hydro-giant that is Lake Baikal with enough fresh water to supply the world for 50 years, and from there I arrived at the Russian Mongolian border. It had taken me about two weeks to drive across Russia, at over 10 hours every day, and I hadn’t even driven right across it. I had to turn south to go to Mongolia. That is the vastness of Russia.

IT WAS SMOOTH sailing across the Mongolian border because the guards thankfully spoke English and driving to India didn’t seem that far from here. They flagged me on with encouragement after quickly stamping my passport and papers.

Mongolia is an ancient land of herders who conquered an empire stretching from China to Hungary. Ulaanbaatar was where I finally unpacked my bag completely after starting from Germany. I also parked the car away for an entire day and did a tonne of laundry. After this I walked around, visited the post office to send a postcard and unwound a bit.

My car had clocked around 9,400 km since starting off from Munich, and the next day I was out again in the steppes heading towards Gobi desert. I saw double- humped Bactrian camels, like the ones we have in Nubra Valley, majestically and effortlessly plodding over the sand, accompanied by long shadows thrown by the rising sun. The odometer turned 10,000 km just as I was nearing the border to China.

Crossing over was a three-hour affair because a customs officer examined my entire luggage with the meticulousness of a bomb disposal squad member. If Mongolia was a tent, then China was a luxury hotel room. Tall buildings, colourful markets, McDonald’s and more greeted us at Erenhot, the Chinese border town, a startling contrast to the rural hinterland of Mongolia that lay just a couple of kilometres away.

IN CHINA, I saw ancient traditions and the latest cellphones go hand-in-hand. I saw cities alit with medieval lanterns in front of which teenagers took pictures with a selfie stick (the Chinese never leave home without one). I drove through the dinosaur parks of Inner Mongolia, a region of China, stopping at the cities of Ulan Chap, Datong and Pingyao to arrive at the Great Wall, which called for another picture of the car in front of a wonder of the world. Then towards X’ian where the Terracotta army was found and onwards to Chengdu, Kunming, Dali and Ruili, eating a variety of delicious food from traditional fiery hotpots to street-side barbeques. Often on the motorways other cars would pull up alongside and a cellphone would come out to take a picture since the new Q7 that I was driving hadn’t been introduced in China yet and of course, there was the Indian number plate.

From China I drove across the border into Myanmar and found myself back in time, at a place of gilded pagodas and temples where people proudly dress in their national attire instead of apeing the West. Things moved here at a slower pace than in China but curiously the internet was much faster because it wasn’t monitored. From Muse, the border town, I drove to Mandalay across broken roads and dusty trails, the first such I had encountered since setting off from Germany that was now about 15,000 km behind.

We were supposed to spend the least number of days in Myanmar but because four bridges had broken down due to floods caused by heavy rains, it turned into a two-week sojourn. I was stuck in a little town called Kalay and spent my time exploring the local countryside on hired mopeds. The more I drove past small villages and little paddy fields watching betel nut chewing farmers riding in bullock carts, the more I realised how much catching up Myanmar had to do. But there was also a heart-warming edge to the absence of any hurry in them.

After I crossed over to India, one of the first things I did in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, was to go looking for masala chai. A sip told me I had arrived in my homeland. My drive to Mumbai from there took me past the tea gardens of Assam, the holy cities of Bodh Gaya and Varanasi, past the Taj Mahal in Agra and across Rajasthan and Gujarat to my home in Mumbai.

I had driven 20,216 km, across two continents, eight time zones and nine countries. It took me 58 days and, when I looked at the car at the end of it, I saw there was not a single scratch on it. I had had no breakdown and not even a puncture. Not a bad end to a dream that came true.

(Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer based in Mumbai and the author of Fast Cars & Fidgety Feet)