Indulge 16th Anniversary Edition: Road to Siberia

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy

Call it audacity or madness, but at the peak of the rainy season this August, offroad pioneer Nidhi Salgame of Wander Beyond Boundaries and a team of participants set off on an epic overland expedition from Mumbai to Magadan.

The plan? Drive 22,500 km in 75 days via Nepal, China, Mongolia and Russia. In a race against time, they must reach Magadan before winter sets in and make it to Vladivostok, crossing rivers before they freeze, while the ferry and route were still open. The vehicles would be shipped from Vladivostok to India. China had just opened its borders post-pandemic. There were floods from India to Mongolia. Russia was at war with Ukraine. Talk about perfect timing…

But then, it’s a WBB adventure after all, spanning five countries and six time zones! Nidhi was no stranger to Siberia. In December 2016, she was the first Indian to drive to the Pole of Cold, a feat not repeated till date. At Oymakyon, the coldest inhabited place on earth, 70-year-old Tamara maintains a register to make note of the rare visitor passing by. In 2019, Nidhi embarked on a single vehicle expedition to the Pole of Cold again, with partner Satty, photographer Milind Kale and one participant, driving 22,500 km from Almaty to Magadan and back. This time, Nidhi planned to create history by leading India’s first self-drive overland expedition to Siberia in Indian vehicles, using Indian tyres, manned by an all-Indian crew.

A part of the convoy

The convoy was a motley bunch. Three Mahindra Thars, a Mahindra XUV 700 and a Mahindra Scorpio fitted with CEAT Crossdrive All-terrain tyres. Besides WBB’s ace expedition mechanic Sushil Guleria, videographer Milind Kale and photographer Aman Verma, there’s Nandita Reddy an interior designer from Hyderabad, Pune-based gynecologist Dr. Sanat Pimpalkhare, Dr Lakshman, a surgeon, anesthesiologist Dr Manjunath and Satish Dutt a stockbroker from Bengaluru, Dr Sharad Tanga, a columnist and ex-Professor from Kalburagi, Smriti Bellad an organic farmer from Hubli, her politician husband Arvind, and Suresh Hosakoppal, a tech exec, viticulturist and designer of vineyard homes in California. The one thing they had in common was a love for adventure.

After blessings from Siddhivinayak Temple and a priest booked online for a puja before the journey, there was a ceremonial flag off from CEAT House in Worli. The drive on the Agra-Lucknow Expressway to Gorakhpur was smooth. The strange markings on the wide tarmac were meant for IAF jets – the highway doubles up as a runway! Entering via Nepal’s Sonauli border, the convoy drove to Kathmandu. The team barely slept before the crucial Chinese visa application process early morning and an anxious wait for days.

To distract themselves the team explored Kathmandu and prayed to every god, turned prayer wheels and lit butter lamps. To deal with the visa stress, some got Singing Bowl treatments in Patan, downed raksi (rice liquor) at Thamel House before letting their hair down at Reggae Bar. And then out of the blue, the call came... the Chinese visas had been granted! They set off for the Tibet border, 130 km from Kathmandu along the Trishuli river. The road was a nightmare for locals but a delight for offroaders! At Rasuvagadhi border checkpost, a series of stringent Immigration, Customs and CARNET checks followed, with a repeat on the Chinese side! Luggage was hauled out and vehicles sprayed with disinfectant, before being reloaded by porters.

Local guide Tashi welcomed the team at the parking lot with khata (white silk scarves) before driving to Gyirong. The convoy was stopped at multiple police check posts. The Chinese were utterly baffled, as they had never seen a convoy of Indians travelling overland to Tibet not going to Kailash Mansarovar! China may only be 2½ hours ahead in time difference but seemed light-years ahead in terms of infrastructure. The shift to smooth tarmac was like entering another realm! Tibet felt like the Roof of the World and the effects of high altitude kicked in for some. The hairpin bends were remarkably safe and well planned, peppered with stunning viewpoints.

The team also visited quite a few notable places during the expedition

The team grabbed lunch at a Nepali eatery in Old Tingri before continuing on the two-hour drive to Everest Base Camp. Unlike Nepal, the EBC excursion here is touristy. Visitors must park at a Vehicle Transfer Centre for a 30-minute bus ride to a stone tablet commemorating the elevation survey of the 8,848.86 m Mt Qomolangma, more famous as Mount Everest. The actual Everest Base Camp where climbers begin Mt Everest’s northern ascent is seven km away. Sadly, the weather was gloomy and views obscured by clouds. Continuing on the G318 or Friendship Highway from Tingri, the convoy drove via Shigatse to Lhasa.

The romantic notion of a misty Himalayan Shangri La lost in time was quickly dispelled as Lhasa turned out to be a new age city where monasteries co-exist alongside modern buildings, glitzy markets and a vibrant nightlife. Potala Palace dominated the skyline. At night, it serves as a backdrop for a spectacular Tibetan outdoor opera of a famous royal wedding of King Songtsen Gampo, founder of the Tibetan Empire, with Tang Princess Wencheng. She undertook a legendary journey to marry him and 700 performers in traditional Tibetan and Han costumes, recreated the tale. King Songtsen also married Bhrikuti, a Lichhavi princess from Nepal. The Jokhang Temple was built to house the Buddha statues brought by the brides in their dowries. Thus, Buddhism came to Tibet.

An Arctic fox intrigued by the convoy

The convoy continued east to Nyingchi, the lowest region in Tibet. With rolling hills, pristine forests, swift rivers and stunning glaciers, it is called ‘The Switzerland of Tibet’. Lulang, set in a dramatic location, lies next to the river with snowy views of Namche Barwa. In autumn, it turns into a riot of colours living up to its name; LuLang is Tibetan for “a place that will make you forget your home”. A short walk across the river leads to eateries in the old town serving the local specialty stone hot pot, a broth that simmers on the tabletop! The convoy drove via Pashu and Mankham to Yajiang and stumbled upon a nomad festival.

The roofs of the houses had transformed to flaunt curved corners, which were distinctly Chinese. Motorways in China are extraordinary - rather than build hairpin bends, they bore tunnels through the mountains! The team drove to the 10,167 ft Mt Emei, the highest of the four Sacred Buddhist mountains in China. From the ferry, the 1,200-year-old 233 ft Giant Buddha statue at Leshan loomed across the river. From tourist sites to local eateries, the convoy created a stir. Locals had never seen overland travellers from India!

A rustic bench outside a dacha

The next stop Chengdu in Sichuan province, was the largest base in the world for Giant Pandas, home to over 50 fuzzballs. Chengdu is also a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and epicentre of Chinese rap music, best experienced at night spots like Hua Live House. The route passed through Xi’an, noteworthy for the legendary Terracotta Warriors. The team headed to Pingyao, with a walled city dating back to 800 BC renovated to its ancient glory. Hundreds of well-preserved Ming and Qing buildings made it akin to a fantasyland frozen in time. The Beijing experience was incomplete without trying the Peking Duck! After a mandatory stop at the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, the most well preserved section, the convoy crossed Ulanqab and Erenhot into Mongolia, entering the vast Gobi Desert.

The only humps one found in Mongolia were double humped Bactrian camels! The stark flatlands rose up to the legendary Flaming Cliffs of Bayan Zag, named after the fiery orange hue the sandstone cliffs acquire at sunset. Paleontological expeditions in the 1920s yielded the first dinosaur eggs, specimens of Velociraptor and nesting sites of Oviraptors, displayed at a small museum. In the Mongolian desert, there’s no escaping the nomadic way of life. The team stayed in traditional gers at Gobi Mirage Lodge, tasted local food and airag (fermented mare’s milk) and witnessed the unique ritual of sprinkling mare’s milk on the tyres for a safe journey.

The team also went to Mongolia during the trip

Driving past the ruins of Ongin Khid monastery, the team reached Erdene Zuu, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery near the ancient Mongol capital Karakorum. At Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, the team enjoyed a cultural performance with throat singing and visited the fascinating Chinggis Khan Museum. Located 54 km east of the capital, the 130 ft stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan is the tallest equestrian statue in the world. The convoy drove north through incredible landscapes towards Darkhan and Sukhbataar port exiting Mongolia.

Since 1727, the Russian town Kyakhta served as the trading point between Russia and China on the Mongolian border south of Lake Baikal. Siberian furs were exchanged for Chinese cotton, silk, tobacco and tea. Driving past Ulaan Ude, the team reached Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest and purest lake in the world. Baikal Nature Reserve Visit Centre is an excellent museum on the lake’s natural history. The Republic of Buryatia has the highest concentration of Old Believer villages in Russia that follow pre-17th century Orthodox Christianity. Guided by Darima, the team explored Tarbagatay, its Old Believer church and quaint log houses decorated with vibrant blue shutters. Some team members donned their colourful costumes and did a traditional jig.

A vintage boat at Yakutsk

The autumn colours painted the Taiga forests in brilliant yellow, green, red and orange. Driving past Chita to Mogocha, the views were mesmerizing. It snowed en route to Aldan and locals predicted an early winter! Food was at the odd café, mostly Borscht, rice, chicken, salad and bread. Taking the ferry crossing across the Lena, after a thrilling drive, the team finally reached Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world to a warm welcome. Permanently covered in permafrost, Yakutsk has stunning churches and monuments like the Victory Stele, a WWII memorial inscribed with the words: ‘No one is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten’. But mankind, it seemed, had forgotten the horrors of war. The team explored the Yakutsk Regional History Museum, Mammoth Museum and the subterranean Kingdom of Permafrost. Marina, a local journalist invited the team to her dacha (countryside home) for ATV rides and a meal of snow sheep meat, reindeer meat, rice and salad.

The route from Yakutsk to Magadan was built by Gulag prisoners under extreme conditions. Many perished and their bodies were interred by the roadside, hence the name ‘Road of Bones’! Permafrost makes it the most dangerous road in the world. On the Aldan ferry, the team met excited Russians who posed for photos and sang ‘Jimmy Jimmy’. Mithun Chakraborty is still huge in Russia. The excitement of a reindeer sighting and an Artic fox was outshone by the sudden glory of the Northern Lights! The icy thrill of reaching the Pole of Cold was stupendous and the convoy halted at Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on earth. A concrete sculpture of a bull at the town square commemorates an unofficial reading in January 1924 of −71.2 °C.

Road of Bones from Yakutsk to Magadan

The team was tired, windswept and weathered, just like the hardy vehicles that had braved the gravel road past Ust Nera to Susuman. After 58 days of driving, the team finally entered Magadan at 8:45 pm, the easternmost point of the motorable road in Russia. Before flying out, the participants visited the Mask of Sorrow museum dedicated to the Gulag prisoners who built the Kolyma highway or the Road of Bones. Switching to CEAT’s WinterDrive tyres, a new crew of seasoned offroaders covered the distance to Vladivostok in record time. Nidhi ensured that all vehicles were loaded onto three 40 ft containers and shipped aboard the vessel Gang Tong. The team is back after the marathon expedition but the machines will reach India after a two-month sea journey.

Fact File

Road to Siberia:
Distance: 22,500 km
Number of days: 75
Route: Mumbai - Agra - Gorakhpur - Kathmandu - Tingri (Tibet) - Everest Base Camp north side - Shigatse - Lhasa - Chengdu - Xi’an - Pingyao - Beijing - Zamin-ud - Gobi desert - Ulaanbaatar - Ulan Ude (Russia) - Lake Baikal - Aldan - Yakutsk - Oymyakon - Ust Nera - Susuman – Magadan – Vladivostok

Next WBB Trips:

Maldives Open Water Dive (Nov-Dec)

Pearl in the Bush, Uganda (26 Jan-7 Feb 2024)

Photos: Aman Verma/Milind Kale (Drone), WBB