A ROUTE Emerges
In some of the newspaper interviews, after I returned from Leh, I talked of my plans to drive to London from Cochin. It sparked interest in the friends’ circles and in gatherings that invited me to share my experience of the solo drives. I also got involved seriously in laying out the route plan. I got in touch with Sanjay Madan, who I met briefly near Rohtang Pass, to ‘unearth’ Tushar Aggarwal. I was able to obtain his web details and from the elaborate details given there I was able to trace their route from London to Delhi via France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China/Tibet and Nepal. It was a wonderful start. I took a virtual tour of the route thanks to Google Maps. As I did that the challenges that Aggarwal and his wife had faced, particularly in Tibet, stood out vividly.
While the traditional Eurasian route between London and Delhi passed through Afghanistan I knew that it was highly unsafe given the prevailing conditions. The critical portions of the route were also closed due to NATO troop deployment and arms movement. However, I mapped alternate routes via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France and UK. I worked on various alternative halt points. The more I studied the route the more I felt that I could do it as a speed exercise – 12000 kilometers in 12 days across 12 countries. The idea that I could get the Guinness team interested in the drive to set a record made me refine the route. Later I learnt that Guinness does not encourage such records, and the plan of setting a speed record was dropped. I scoured the Internet for information about the route – safety, condition of the roads, etc. Safety cropped up as a major concern in the Quetta region of Pakistan and Iran. I emailed a friend from my days in London School of Economics, who was resident in Rawalpindi, to get an idea of route safety. I specifically asked about ‘unsafe’ places on the Lahore-Multan-Quetta route to Iran. In a trice he responded thus: “He, He, which place in Pakistan is safe?” My friend also put me in touch with another of his who used to off road in Pakistan. Of him I asked if hiring of security guards in Pakistan would ensure safe passage. The response was even more direct: “They will be okay when there is no trouble; the minute it brews they could add to your problems.” It was even suggested that I should ship the car to Bunder Abbas (Iran) and drive on from there to London. But the objective was to drive from Cochin through to London – shipping did not enter the equation.
Even though I had worked on hotels along the route in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria I abandoned the route and got back to the one through Tibet. It would not only be longer by about 6000 kilometers, the visa procedures would also be more cumbersome. However, the route had to be via Nepal and China. Then I interacted with Aggarwal to get a better idea of conditions en route, the visa procedures, etc. With the information I got from him I got in touch with a recommended tour company in China that would arrange visas and car permits. Through them I knew that travel through Tibet and China is serious business and involves many months of planning and documentation. Apart from it being expensive (about INR 4.5 lakhs per person) the route and time taken would be predetermined – in my case, 15 days – and a tour guide would have to be accommodated in the car for the entire duration of the journey through China. The costs of the tour company did not include the boarding, lodging and tips of the tour guide!
After many revisions I decided on a 60 day journey from Cochin to UK and Ireland. It would take more than 7 weeks to reach London; thereafter, a weeklong drive through UK and Ireland. The drive was to cover 18000 kilometers across 14 countries. 7 visas had to be obtained and the visa process itself would last 4 months; the toughest ones being the Central Asian countries. Well, this route which I thought would be it, had to be revised in the light of the wide spread protests in Ukraine since December 2013. In Jan 2014 I inspected a ship in Tarragona port in Spain. The Chief Mate of the ship, Vasily, was from Ukraine. He suggested that I avoid travelling through Ukraine due to troubles fanning across the country and its immediate neighborhood. I discussed this with Baiju on arrival and decided to re-route from Volgograd to St. Petersburg in Russia. From there we decided to get into Schengen territory via Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The original route would then be followed to get to Warsaw. To accommodate the revised route we economized on distances in India, Nepal and UK. Finally, it was to be 18,000 kilometers through 16 countries in 60 days. Or so, I thought.
In the middle of the night of 17 April I woke up worried about the lack of positive response to sponsorship for the trip. I spend sometime dwelling on it and then decided to take another look at the route. The more I stared at the map the more I wondered why I was not doing more Schengen states, especially the Scandinavian countries. To do so would mean ferry crossings and extensive re-routing. Finally, after a few hours, by when sleep and worries got deeply buried in the sub-conscious, I emerged with a fascinating route covering 19 of the 26 Schengen member states, an exotic tour of Ireland and all constituents of the UK. The rotation would cover 24,000 kms across 27 countries in 2 Continents over 75 days. Thus, the journey which would start from Cochin will vend through Kanyakumari, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Jabalpur, and Gorakhpur in India, before entering Nepal and crossing over to Tibet. From there the route to Europe will go through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. The European saga will include Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, France and Ireland before terminating in London (UK).
Research is important in planning a trip of this magnitude. The more I researched, the more I learnt. The more I learnt, the more difficult it seemed. Anyway, the original schedule of doing the trip in the summer of 2013 had to be put back to 2014. I had initially decided on starting from Cochin on 14 May 2014. Even that changed, since Lal had to finish shooting and editing works of ‘Vikramadityan’. The ‘launch’ was reset for 16 June. However, as the days drew close uncertainties also started clouding the departure date. Well, that’s another story.