Mumbai

Age is a number: 73-year-old covers 19 countries in 72 days

Badri Baldawa and his wife inside their car at Goregaon. The Couple along with their grand daughter went on a road trip from Mumbai to London  

Mumbai: In 2011, Badri Baldawa was returning from London to Mumbai. Unlike other times, his wife Pushpa allowed him to take the window seat. As Mr. Baldawa looked down from the window, he was mesmerised looking at the mountains below. The avid traveller wondered what would it be like to drive through the mountains, but his wife dismissed this as a joke. By May 2016, he began to chart plans. And on March 23 this year, he embarked on the road trip with his 64-year-old wife and 10-year-old granddaughter in their BMW X5, across 72 days, crossing 19 countries and covering 22,200 km, before reaching London.

The 73-year-old steel exporter and chartered accountant, and hiswife, who are originally from Rajasthan but were raised in Karnataka before they found their home in Mumbai, have undertaken long trips before: Mr. Baldawa had hiked up to one of the base camps of Mount Everest [2008], and had, three decades ago, driven from Mumbai to Badrinath. Apart from these were several cruises, a drive across Iceland in 2015 along with his 10-year-old granddaughter Nishi, and a 46-hour non-stop drive through Norway to reach North Cape, to make it in time to witness the longest night. Mr. Baldawa has also travelled to Antarctica, and claims to be the first Indian to reach 90 Degree North.

Mr. Baldawa has visa stamps from 65 countries; his wife has 55. But this road trip has had a lasting impact on the couple. “It is difficult for me to think of the highlight of the trip, apart from the constant feeling of wanting to revisit those places and spend more time in almost all of them,” says Ms. Baldawa.

Planning

In 2016, along with some friends from Delhi, the couple began the process of charting out the route -- an unusual one, by all standards. They drove across India to Imphal, and from there, south to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and then to China, before entering Russia and finallythe Schengen area. “There was no other alternate route to drive to London from Mumbai: if I were to drive via Pakistan and Afghanistan, there was no guarantee that I would make it alive. We could not go north via Tibet either, as China would not allow it,” says Mr. Baldawa.

They spent 24 days driving from Mumbai to Imphal, as they had wanted to explore many places within the country, and especially expose their UK-based granddaughter to the country’s diversity.

In Imphal, they were joined by 12 other vehicles. In all they were 26 adults, and one child. The rest of the group were people from Tanzania, UK and other parts of India. Three others were from Mumbai.

With all the planning, there were the usual worries: even though Mr Baldawa had obtained an international driving licence, their passports were not with them. They were held up in the Uzbek consulate, because the consulate had run out of visa stickers to be affixed on the passport.

All hotels were booked in advance, and daily night stops planned after extensive research, about the condition of the roads, interesting things to see or do on the way, and existence of proper hotels. In some places, like eastern Europe, they needed mandatory guides, who helped them navigate, especially when the language and local ethos were not known, and there were security concerns. In some places, local registration of the vehicles was also required.

The actual trip

From Manipur, they headed to southeast Asia. In Thailand, the tourism ministry organised a cultural event for them. Finally, when they entered Kunming in China, they drove for 16 days across the northwestern region of the country.

Further along in northwest China, in a span of four hours, they went from 24 degree Celcius in Dunhang to zero degrees Celcius in Xining. As much as they were not prepared for the tight security in the border between China and Kyrgyzstan – with petrol pumps being manned by police – they were also not prepared to experience the warmth of the people. “We went in with an assumption that people in China and Russia are tough and not too welcoming of outsiders, but we were welcomed everywhere,” said Mr. Baldawa.

The convoy had to cross the border between Russia and Belarus, via Smolensk, but had to abandon that route for security issues, and had to detour and go via Latvia and Lithuania. “During that route, three large storks came flying towards us and one of them hit our windshield, crashing the glass. I was driving at 120 kmph, and hence could not apply sudden breaks, as not far from us was a valley. Unfortunately, the stork fell off and I was able to halt only about half-a-km away,” said Mr. Baldawa.

On an average, they were driving 400 km each day, for 12 hours, and taking adequate breaks to look at the places. The longest distance driven on a single day was 930 km, from Warsaw to Brussels. “On that day we had breakfast in Warsaw (Poland), lunch in Cologne (Germany), and dinner in Brussels (Belgium),” said Ms. Baldawa. In Lithuania, Russia and Brussels, dinners were hosted by the Indian embassies. Photographs taken daily were emailed to the Baldawa children, who uploaded them on a blog and Facebook.

What they saw

Ms. Baldawa was shocked to see the pit toilets in rural China and Russia. Yet, she cannot forget the cleanliness everywhere. “Across all cultures, there is a high sense of civic responsibility, even in rural areas. That is something I wonder why we Indians can’t work towards,” she says.

While the roads in China were expected to have the best infrastructure, what surprised them the most were the roads in the mountainous regions. “Across northeast India, the roads wind around hills. But there were high-speed highways that connected mountain tops, and long tunnels through the mountains too,” says Mr. Baldawa, adding that it ensured that their speed be maintained towards their daily plan of arriving at their set daily destinations.

Along the way in China, Nishi turned 10. She was on her second trip with her maternal grandparents, and even though she had an upset stomach twice, she insisted on completing the trip. “It was my responsibility to ensure her safety and well-being as I am accountable to her parents,” said Ms. Baldawa. Her husband, on the other hand, was confident that she would enjoy the trip even though there was no other child all through the 72 days.

And there were moments from their travel that made them wonder about life back home. “I was very surprised and saddened to see that near Bhopal, the rocks and stones that are part of the Udaygiri caves were being taken by builders for construction of buildings. On the other hand, in Uzbekistan, the palaces undergo an annual upkeep. We have thousands of such places in India rich in heritage, but we just do not maintain them,” said Mr. Baldawa.

Similarly, they were enchanted by the peaceful coexistence of elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and deer in Kaziranga National Park. “I wondered why humans cannot coexist.”

But given that the couple has together covered a significant ground across the world, did they see the world from a different lens because of the road trip? Mr. Baldawa is quick to respond that driving allows one to see the ground reality, cultures and the ways in which governments function. “When you fly into a place, almost everything is readily accessible and uniform, and so there is a disconnect. But when you drive, the experience of a place is more real in every way, revealing the essence of a place more accurately.”

What next?

The Baldawa couple is now on a soft mission to share the story their travels, the key message being that age is just a number.

They also wish to convey that there will be several problems on a mammoth plan like this. “But it is up to us to see them as challenges and overpower them, instead of being overpowered.”

Even though he has been to Antartica, Mr Baldawa’s next goal in 90 degree South, while the ultimate goal is a zero gravity space walk. As for Mrs Baldawa: “I haven’t thought of the next trip but will be ready to go wherever he wants to go.”


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