Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Four wheels and the highway

After a traffic fine and a perfect shot of St Basil’s Cathedral in Russia, RISHAD SAAM MEHTA continues his drive through vast barren lands onto dusty Mongolia

To me, Minsk feels like just another European city. That, however, is soon done away with, as I start heading towards Moscow, approximately 700 km away. For the first time since we started, I come across old farmers in coats and clothes cut in the fashion of the last of the Fifties, selling freshly plucked apples and other fruits by the side of the expressway. This is something that you don’t see even on the ever-increasing number of expressways that we have in India.

The typical architecture of Russian orthodox churches soon becomes very prominent, and the most outstanding one is at Katyn, just after the Belarus-Russia border approximately 400 km short of Moscow. It is here that almost 22,000 Polish prisoners of war lost their lives under the orders of the Soviet leader, Stalin. Today, it is a memorial to the slaughtered Poles.

It is a place that sobers the mood in the car. We drive into Moscow, greeted by the neon lights that showcase the flamboyant architecture of the grand palaces, churches, museums and malls that populate the old centre of the Communist world. But, today, with flashy brands splashed across humongous billboards and the latest luxury cars peppered amongst the traffic, it feels more capitalist than the west.

This is my second visit to Moscow, but it feels way more special, because I know that I will be actually driving my car all the way from here to my home in Mumbai. This excitement fuels the desire to get a picture of my car in front of Moscow’s most iconic landmark — St Basil’s Cathedral, the one with domes like blueberry or strawberry ice-cream ripple. But, there is a Military Band Tattoo or music festival planned that evening, and the whole area is cordoned off. Tyres squealing, I take a hard U-turn on the bridge in front of the cathedral, hop off and get my shot. A few moments later, the cops chase me down and get me. Feigning ignorance, using sign language and begging for forgiveness doesn’t work, and I am left lighter by 5000 Roubles, which is almost Rs. 5000. But, it is worth the price, because that photograph remains my favourite out of the 40,000 that were shot.

Over the next two weeks, I learn that Russia stretches out behind Moscow in a seemingly never ending landmass that brings to mind the word ‘vastness’. I drive 800 km a day in 10- to 12-hour stretches, but the Mongolian border still remains thousands of kilometres away.

Time zones are crossed every few days, and we even cross over into Asia from Europe. An interesting fact that a waitress at a truck diner tells me is that only one-fourth of Russia’s landmass is in Europe, but three-fourths of the population lives in this part of Russia. Driving across the towns of Kazan, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Divnogorsk and Tulun makes me wonder how such a large country can be governed and, even more, how in the world Napoleon or Hitler ever thought about occupying or subduing it. We drive past mosques, churches, museums, battlefields, oil wells, colourful Siberian wood houses and huge rivers such as the Volga and the Yenisei. And, I am continuously amazed by the social fabric that is draped across Russia — there are the Kazaks, the Tartars, the Bashkors, the Siberians and the Mongols, and I can actually notice how vistas and visages are changing as we head further east.

The last highlight in Russia is Lake Baikal — called a lake, but bigger than most seas I know. If the world ran out of fresh water, Baikal could fulfil its needs for 50 years; it contains so much water.

Finally, we approach the Mongolian Border. We are 10,000 km from Munich, and two-and-a-half hours ahead of Indian Standard Time. In Munich, we were three-and-a-half hours behind IST!

We breeze through the Russia-Mongolia border, since the guards understand English. Most of them are fascinated about what I have set out to do, and usher us through with best wishes and a lot of back thumping.

Mongolia is stark and enigmatic; the steppes still nurture the sheep herders who once controlled an empire that encompassed most of China and Russia, and stretched from here to the border of Hungary. Genghis Khan, the man behind this empire, is still celebrated by way of a beer named after him, a square named after him in Ulaanbaatar, and a huge monument outside Mongolia that has him perched atop his horse. Ironically, this dusty little country, surrounded by the Gobi desert in which double-humped Bactrian camels roam, is where I find the best roads to drive a sports car. They are baby-bottom smooth, with hardly any traffic, and feature delicious corners that creep up suddenly. The driving here is very involving, and my vehicle could easily hit 240 kph if required.

Mongolia is also where we experience the only snowfall of the trip, and some fabulous sunrises and sunsets, and perfect end-to-end rainbows. It is truly an enigmatic corner of the world.

But, soon, we will leave behind all this vastness and empty spaces, which have been a sort of companion since we left Moscow, and drive into that boiling pot of history and technology that is constantly stirred by the selfie sticks that almost all the population carries.

China looms ahead!

(Part two of a three-part series on the author’s road trip from Munich to Mumbai.)

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