Besides route planning and finalization the major challenges are sourcing a car (more so when the expedition is overseas), procurement of the Carnet, obtaining visas and sourcing the finances. Having done eight expeditions in the past much of the planning process has become a straight forward drill. Each expedition adds to the experience and the ‘To Do’ and ‘To Pack’ lists undergo minor changes. While the London drive involved almost 24 months of planning that to Singapore and back was done in less than 3 months! That’s how experience helps. I shall deal with each of the above mentioned challenges individually. However, I would like to affirm that these alone are not the only challenges; I am mentioning just the most formidable.
Deciding on the right vehicle and sourcing it is the most formidable task. The Ford Endeavour I had partnered on three wonderful overseas expeditions had done over 130,000 km and was showing signs of aging. I wanted to dispose her off and source another for the new expedition. My first approach was naturally to the Ford Company. I was specially invited to the launch of the new Endeavour in Cochin last December. I made a pitch to the marketing guys who were at the launch. I was asked to send formal proposals, which I did. Another top ranking Ford official overlooking production in Chennai and Sanand sought another set. As had been my experience with the Company in the past, there was not even a single word in reply. Not one. And at Rs. 35 lakh the beautiful machine was way beyond my budget to personally own one. I felt that it would have been a wonderful opportunity for Ford to showcase its much touted features for the Trans-Siberian drive would have fully tested them.
Through friends and family I made similar approaches to Toyota, Hyundai and Mahindra. Again, to no avail. Agents in Myanmar and China had requested me to finalise the arrangements by mid-March, which required the details of the car, so that they could send me documents needed to apply for visas in India. Time was running out and by early March I decided to buy a Mahindra XUV500 W10, a two wheel drive automatic transmission car. I would have loved to go in for the four wheel drive, but the dealership in Cochin said that I would have to wait for six weeks to get one. Hence, I plumbed for one that was more readily available. And I was specific about the color; wanted a white one so that branding would stand out effectively against that background. I had to arrange a loan of Rs. 15 lakhs besides making a down payment of Rs. 4.5 lakhs to take delivery of the car on 23 March. Many friends and well-wishers questioned the choice of the car for such an arduous trip. Honestly, I must say that I fell for the features in the car and the feel behind the wheel. I feel I have made the right choice considering the price and its performance.
Once the delivery of the car was taken after its registration (which was done in less than four hours!), the next job was to obtain the International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP is issued only against a valid visa. Fortunately, I have a valid US Visa on my passport and that helped me obtain the IDP the same day, thanks to NM Shaji, the RTO in Kakkanad, with a lot of help from my former colleague in DP World, Sasidharan. Guardian Angels, they all are.
I was now ready to get the Carnet. For the previous two overseas drives where I required the Carnet I had obtained it from the Automobile Association of Southern India (AASI), in Chennai. Besides being time consuming the AASI insisted on three and half times the original value of the car in terms of BG to issue the Carnet. I contacted Mr Nitin Dossa of the Western India Automobile Association (WIAA) and he promised that the Carnet would reach me within 72 hours of acceptance of papers in the WIAA office in Mumbai. Moreover, he did not want to inspect the vehicle and the BG was limited to one and half times the value of the car. Ali stepped in once again; he instructed his bank to complete the necessary formalities to get me a BG for Rs. 25 lakhs. The bank promptly complied with the instructions. I mailed the requisite forms and BG to WIAA and without too much of hassle the Carnet reached me. You will wonder what all this fuss is about the Carnet, if all is as smooth as all this? Well, for one, the WIAA has hiked the Carnet fees to Rs. 1 lakh! I had paid Rs. 10,000 for two booklets for the London drive. And now, for just five leaves in one booklet I had to fork out ten times that. This is nothing short of daylight robbery. WIAA justified the hike saying that the cost of administering the Carnet has gone up! To me it looked like surge pricing. The demand for overseas travel using Indian registered vehicles has gone up. So why not milk the demand? Secondly, individuals will find it difficult to obtain BGs. In my case, had it not been for the kind assistance of Ali, the trip would be a non-starter.
Shrey Bansal of Lifestyle Services has been involved in all my overseas driving expeditions. He has, almost single handedly, made difficult situations simple and made sure that timelines are kept. This time around too I depended on Shrey to get me the visas for Russia, China and Myanmar. I sent him the documents as requested and we started the visa process by mid-April. Immediately we hit a concrete wall. The Russian visa office had a thousand demands and almost impossible timelines. As suggested by my very good friend, Rajiv Shah of Network Tours and Travels, Surat I asked Shrey to process the visa for Russia through a source in Mumbai. I had to fork out Rs. 600 per day for the intended duration f the stay in Russia besides the visa processing fee. The Russian visa itself cost me about Rs. 25,000 and five working days. I had serious issues at the Russian border on the London drive. The passport number had been wrongly given in the Visa. This time I got Shrey to check and double check the details entered in the Visa.
The Chinese Visa was obtained in three days, but revised documents had to be filed because the visa office needed confirmed tickets of travel into and out of China. Navo Tours obliged and by 2nd May I had the Chinese visa stamped in my passport. Myanmar was not a hassle at all. By evening of 6th May my passport was couriered to me and I received it on the 9th. Thus, the car, Carnet and visas were all in the bag.
Funding has always remained a tough proposition for me In all my expeditions, except three. I have always found it almost impossible to get people or companies interested in the drives. In this I have found the attitude of the car manufacturers the most baffling. Take the case of Mahindra. The XUV500 has not received very many favourable responses in the foreign media, or so I have been told. And Russia, I understand, is one of the Company’s focus markets outside India. This was one opportunity for the Company to showcase what the India Cheetah is capable of, and that too on a solo drive by a near-senior citizen! Make in India could have been the theme, as is being promoted by the Hon PM of India. Anyway, be that as it may, I decided to dip into my fast vanishing reserve fund to source the nearly Rs. 15 lakhs required for the journey. With funds finally in place, I had overcome the last of the challenges I faced prior to the start of the expedition.