For Nidhi Tiwari, there are no boundaries or barriers except in the mind. Meet the woman just back from a solo road trip in the coldest part of the planet, as part of an educational program.
A young woman in her thirties has just become the first Indian to drive to the coldest inhabited place on the planet. She is also the first Indian to drive on one of the most dangerous roads in the world in conditions that saw the temperature touch minus 60 degrees C. Her only companion on the 13 day journey was the Toyota Land Cruiser.
Meet Nidhi Tiwari, the woman who believes that that boundaries are only self drawn both within ourselves and outside of ourselves. She is back from a 5,000 km solo road trip in Siberia which saw her drive from Yakutsk to Magadan and back. It took her on the Kolyma highway, called infamously the ‘Highway of bones’ after the interred skeletons of labourers who died during the construction. The trip saw her make it to the pole of cold, Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on Earth.
Even for someone as experienced as Nidhi is with the ways of the wilderness, the Siberian drive was “way too extreme” and she would like to spend some time savouring and reliving the moments, before planning her next escapade!
Most days Nidhi drove for almost 12 hours a day, most of it in the dark as the region gets barely three hours of sunlight in the winter. A foodie may wince at the limited choice of foods restricted to beef, caribou and horse meat and fish! Often the meat was raw and frozen. Eating this fare for two weeks was not easy, as Nidhi realised.
“Food was a challenge but that’s when bread, jam and butter come to your rescue!”
However, the populations in these cold places relish their raw meat which could be as much to do with the requirements of the extreme cold. The cold is such in winter that no one ventures outside the warmth of their homes. No wonder the roads were all empty, giving it a “dead feel”. All the work gets done in summer and food and fuel is stocked for the winter, says Nidhi, who is all admiration for the resilience of the people to the weather and terrain.
Traditional occupations are horse breeding and fishing. Yakutia horses are bred for meat. “The rivers here are full of fish with ice fishing common. There are also some mining towns in the region which is rich in resources like coal, gold, diamond, silver, gas and petroleum, silver, etc. Many people are employed at the mines too.”
The women mostly stay home and tend to the house.
Remote and cold as the region, it is also well equipped and organized. Like Oymyakon which Nidhi points out is powered by a generators. Coal based heating plant supplies hot water to houses as also drinking water. “A truck draws water from the hot spring and goes door to door and supplies water.”
Wherever she went, the people were intrigued, both by a woman driver and one from India!
“They wanted to know so much about me.. was I married, did I have kids, wanted to see pictures… Overall, the people were very welcoming.”
But the hurdle was language.
All conversations were through Google Translator, which she calls her lifeline! “It was hilarious initially but soon I got used to it.”
In some small cafes enroute, people didn’t even take money from Nidhi for food. Instead they wanted to click pictures with her, having never met an Indian.
Interestingly, besides the personal experience, the trip costing around Rs 10 lakh was organised as an educational one in partnership with 15 schools.
Nidhi sees such journeys as means to introduce to students the idea of explorations and doing things out of the ordinary. Equally important, it exposes them to areas of the world they rarely read about in regular schooling.
“Often we keep telling students that they must make a mark for themselves, do stuff out of the box in whatever field they choose. But we do not give them an idea about the journey actually. This time I wanted to introduce them to that journey and what it takes to endure a journey like this.”
Nidhi would take videos of the terrain and people and these would be screened in the schools, almost in real time. It conveyed both the sense of joy and jubilation as well as frustrations on losing the way on a snow-covered track! “You had to take everything in your stride and pull through… I am hoping that they have got this vibe.”
She hopes her journey has inspired students to do stuff out of the ordinary.
In this solo journey in unknown and mostly empty land, did she feel afraid?
“Fear? No. Uncertainty, yes. Many times when I had to make decisions and didn’t know which way it will go… But those are moments one learns most.”
Thankfully her vehicle behaved and there were no major malfunctioning.
The challenge of taking on the extreme weather and dangerous driving notwithstanding, the journey had its rewards. The play of sunlight on the bleak landscape was something mesmerising for Nidhi.
“It was dramatic. I would start driving in the dark.. The landscape would be grey and then slowly turn pinkish, orange, then yellow and then again orange, pink, grey. I saw this day after day. It was Nature at its best. Pure Siberian wilderness.”
It was a year ago that Nidhi and two others made headlines when they drove 23,800 km by a Scorpio from Delhi to London in 97 days. She was the driver then too. Since then she has started a group ‘Women Beyond Boundaries’ to encourage women to break barriers and take on extreme overland journeys.
Last year was spent mostly in gaining experience for her solo trip and learn about the vehicle.
After her first Himalayan hike in Bhutan at the age of 11, Nidhi went on to explore the wild nooks and corners of her home state Karnataka, establishing an outdoor school at Sagara and conducting treks for groups. Till marriage happened and took her beyond. She then took to off-roading expeditions, often alone or with one of her toddler sons.
You never can predict what she will do next. Like I told her as a joke (though in earnest) it could well be a drive on the Rover on Mars!