More Indian travelers are choosing extreme road trips to see the world

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Meenakshi Sai, 51, looks like any other Indian woman, dressed in a saree and sporting a bindi on her forehead.

But unlike many women in her country, she’s been driving since she was 18 years old. As of 2020, less than 7% of India’s 236 million drivers were women, according to the data website Statista.

“I have been driving since I was legally allowed to and have always enjoyed the freedom it afforded me and the feeling of being independent,” said Sai. “After my only daughter went away to boarding school, I had a lot of time on my hands. I started traveling a lot, both solo and with friends.”

Sai was one of a team of eight Indians who drove 20,000 km (12,430 miles) across five countries from Coimbatore, India to St. Petersburg, Russia to spread awareness about cervical cancer.

More Indians are taking road trips these days — both within the country and beyond, solo and in groups — as access to better vehicles and better roads grows in the country.

There’s also the rise of slow travel. However, Sai took her first road trip back in 2016, before it became a trend.

“I drove to Thailand with a group of 20 people,” she said, “from Manipur in India’s northeast to Bangkok, which took us 13 days.”

Meenakshi Sai, on a road trip from India to Russia to spread awareness about cervical cancer.

Source: Meenakshi Sai

Her next big road trip was from India to London, which she called “complicated.”

“It took me six months to draw up the itinerary,” she said. “It was difficult to find anyone in my own circle of friends and family who had the time or were willing to invest the money in this trip.”

In the end, she found two women through social media — one from Mumbai, the other from Pollachi — who were interested in joining her.

Tata Motors sponsored the trip, which stretched for more than 14,900 miles and coincided with the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. The journey took 70 days, taking the three women across 24 countries, including Russia, Poland and Uzbekistan.

“We drove around 600 kilometers a day,” Sai said. “Many countries had given us date-specific visas so we could not afford to be delayed, even by a few hours.” 

Sai, who is a vegetarian, said she subsisted on “a lot of potatoes and bread” in countries where meat was a major dietary staple.

Source: Meenakshi Sai

Road conditions combined with changing weather and altitude levels made the trip difficult, she said — as did the fact that she’s vegetarian, which made suitable food options challenging to find in many countries.

“I ate a lot of potatoes and bread in countries like Kyrgyzstan where there was a lot of meat,” she said. 

Sai now runs an overland driving company that organizes road trips across countries like Namibia, Georgia, Armenia, Nepal and Mongolia.

“Driving through a country is the way to see it, connecting with locals, stopping where you feel like, border crossings, and thriving on uncertainty. I also love the freedom that the open road gives me,” she said.

100 road trips, 50 countries

In 2001, Mumbai-based Rishad Saam Mehta, 51, drove from Delhi to the Nubra Valley, an area of Ladakh in northeast India.

“It was my first drive in the high Himalayas, and I didn’t know how dangerous and narrow and high the roads were, and the havoc that altitude can play on one physically. It was a lesson learnt the hard way,” said the journalist and author.

Rishad Saam Mehta near the Great Wall of China.

Source: Rishad Saam Mehta,

Since then, Mehta has taken more than 100 road trips across some 50 countries. One really exciting one was the drive from Munich to Mumbai, which lasted two months and covered eight countries, he said.

He also drives different cars, depending on the trip, he said.

“I did a drive in a Ferrari through the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, then a snow drive in Spiti in Northern India in a Toyota Fortuner, then a fall drive in New England in a Ford Bronco,” he said. “These were all favorites.”

His advice? “There are many great drives around the world, some I come across by chance, some I research beforehand … but the company has to be good, otherwise, it is a disaster,” he said.

The ‘Great India World Trip’

Tushar Agarwal, a software engineer, drove from London to Delhi in 2010.

He said the journey of 51 days was life-changing and prompted him to resign from his job in London, move back to Delhi, and co-found a company called Adventures Overland with his friend Sanjay Madan in 2012.

A road-side stop in Jordan.

Source: Adventures Overland

“I felt that this was my purpose in life…  there was no looking back,” said Agarwal.   

Today, Adventure Overland is one of India’s biggest road trip companies. It organizes curated driving trips across the globe.

Agarwal has traveled to 92 countries and gone on road trips in six continents. His most adventurous trip, called the “Great India World Trip,” is now a 10-episode series on Discovery Channel. Along with his co-founder Madan, the journey took them across six continents and 50 countries, securing them a Guinness World Record for the longest journey by car in a single country for their 10,600-mile trek across Australia.

A 65-day trip from India to London with Adventures Overland costs around $30,000 and includes a hot air balloon ride and cruise, according to its website.

Source: Adventures Overland

Traversing beautiful terrains and driving through unknown territory, border crossings and contending with unfamiliar food and inclement weather may not be for everybody.

But as Mehta said, “The sense of freedom and not being shackled to timetables and schedules … and also the spontaneity it affords, makes driving the ultimate adventure.”

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