Tushar Agarwal, who holds many motoring and travel records, has just returned to India as part of the Indian team that participated in the second India ASEAN Car Rally 2012 - a 9-nation car rally, which began on November 26 in Indonesia after being flagged off at Singapore. Agarwal and the Indian team, which also included among others Tarun Vijay, BJP Rajya Sabha MP, and New Delhi-based oldest participant the 73-year old Subhas Chandra, drove through Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and India, before reaching Guwahati on December 17.
The 32-year-old Agarwal has driven in more than 20 countries and holds three Limca Book of Records. He is a Fellow at the Royal Geographic Society, London; has diplomas from IBM and Aptech; is fluent in Japanese, and has been an IT professional for more than 10 years. In this freewheeling interview, Delhi-based Agarwal talks about his experiences on the road, the ASEAN car rally, and his passion for travel.
CJ: Having been part of the Indian team that participated in the India ASEAN Car Rally 2012 - how tough was it traveling 8,000 kms in just 22 days?
The terrain through which we drove during the ASEAN rally had a mix of various terrains. We drove through silky highways of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, tackled a sea of 2 wheelers in Vietnam and drove through dust, gravel and remote forests of Myanmaar. The roads in Manipur
were a bit challenging but it all added extra flavour to the journey. When going on a long-distance cross-country expedition, you are always faced with many challenges. It is not so much about driving skills but is a test of your nerves as well. There were some tough days when we drove for 16 hours at a stretch. One day we had breakfast in Vietnam, lunch in Cambodia and dinner in Laos! The highlight of the trip was eating a venomous Asian Tarantula Spider in Cambodia. I am proud I tried it and enjoyed it. I strongly believe that: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, avoid the people and fear the religion, you might as well stay at home.”
CJ: You run Adventures Overland and offer services for self-driven travel in India. If a customer approaches you with plans to travel from say Visakhapatnam to Jammu - how do you help him organize the trip?
We follow a thumb rule. We don’t market destinations that we have not been ourselves. Before we run expeditions in a particular country or region within India, our team goes and does a recce. This helps us in getting local knowledge about the best places to eat, sightseeing, road conditions, and places to stay, etc. We are not a travel agency, we are a group of like-minded passionate travellers. For a drive like Vishakapatnam to Jammu, we would design the route keeping in mind any specific places that the participants would like to visit, sort out any permits if needed, provide road maps, GPS, emergency rescue kits, hotel accommodation, first aid, oxygen cylinder (if going to high-altitude destinations) and any other equipment, which we think may be necessary for a particular geographic location.
CJ: You have driven all the way to Mana Pass - the highest motorable road in the world at 18,399 feet at the Indo-China border. Give us a glimpse of the journey and how you felt when you reached the Pass.
Mana Pass is the most challenging drives that I have done. It is 53 kms from Mana, the last Indian village just outside Badrinath in Uttarkhand. The road to Mana Pass has been opened by BRO only a few months back but it's really still just a track. It took us 6 hours to cover a distance of 53 km. We had to drive on huge rocks, on snow, through river streams and, of course, at extreme high altitudes. We knew it would be difficult but we were not prepared for the absolute hostility of the region. Even the army and BSF don’t hold a post at the Pass due to the unforgiving climatic conditions. It started snowing suddenly and within 15 minutes our visibility became very poor. Had our car broken down there, we could have been be stuck for hours before help arrived. One of our team members suffered from altitude sickness and we had to give him oxygen on the way down. But, despite the difficulties, it was one of the most exciting and thrilling drives of my life, and I would love to go back there!
CJ: Since the last seven years you have been on one travel expedition or the other. What drives you - seeing new places, the driving or the combination?
I am always craving for the road. Driving to unexplored destinations, meeting people and trying the local food is what I look for when I plan expeditions. I caught the travel bug as a child when I started going on road trips with my dad. The experiences that you can have on the road while going to your destination are absolutely different compared to when you are flying somewhere. I strongly believe that it’s the unplanned things in your journey that you always remember rather than the planned activities. I easily forget names of monuments or the history of a place but I mostly remember the conversations I have with the locals or the local foods that I try.
Every person has the passion and the desire to do something crazy. Most people are stuck in a rat race and though they end up making money, but somewhere down the line, happiness and the passion evaporates. You don’t need to be rich to be happy. Once I realized that I am happiest when I am on the road, I decided to do something about it. It took a few years, but eventually I gave up my lucrative IT career in London and decided to trade my high-paying job for a life on the road. I am very happy now because I am living my dream. My passion in life is my work so I don’t feel like I am working anymore!
CJ: Having traveled to and within many countries - in which trips did you have the most adventure?
Uzbekistan is my favourite country for a road trip. Driving through the silk route in Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana valley was a fantastic experience and not something that a lot of people have done. But what makes Uzbekistan even more special is the warmth and the affection of the local people - especially towards Indians. This is also because of their fondness for Bollywood. I oversped 4 times but was let go without a single fine every time - simply because I was Indian. I was also not made to wait in a queue at the border and given priority just for being an Indian citizen!
Overall, the London-Delhi by road journey was an epic trip but the trans-Himalayan drive from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh
was a real test of driving skills, mental toughness and also as a team leader. Driving through the entire Himalayan range non-stop day and night for 9 days, 6 hours and 15 minutes, is not easy. On a journey like this, it is very important to always keep a positive mind. Anything can happen on the road anytime. But I believe that every problem comes with a solution. I like to take each day as it comes and enjoy the moment.
An expedition like the trans-Himalayan transit gets you out of your comfort zone and even helps you realize your own strengths and weaknesses by putting you in unexpected situations. I tried camel milk and horse milk in Kazakhstan, and I ate a venomous Asian tarantula spider in Cambodia!
CJ: Is road-based self-driven travel a pain or joy in India?
It depends on where you are going. Overall, I think India has the most diverse terrains for a road trip. The drive from Manali
is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Places such as Rajasthan
and Rann of Kutch offer terrains that you will rarely find in other countries. Unexplored terrains of the North East are an eye-opener and a pleasure to drive to.
CJ: How do you prepare for car break downs in the middle of nowhere, carjackers, a health issues and sleep deprivation in long journeys?
We carry emergency rescue equipment with us on self-drive expeditions. We try to keep number of driving hours in check, and follow a simple thumb rule that we are not going to drive after sunset. We will make you rough it out during the day, but will make sure you get a comfortable bed in the night. We always travel in a convoy and this keeps carjackers at bay and encourages participants to shout out if they feel sleepy at any point even during the day. There is no shame in admitting that you are tired or sleepy.
CJ: What would you rather drive on - an Autobahn in Germany or a dirt road in Morocco?
Dirt road in Morocco is more like me! Auto bahn is fun, but after 20 minutes, I will feel sleepy due to the monotonous driving. The dirt tracks of Morocco will always keep me alert and on my toes!
CJ: In terms of sheer natural beauty, which has been your best journey? Also tell us, which country has the best roads, and is most traveler-friendly?
Autobahns clearly are the best roads to drive on. The most scenic drive for me is undoubtedly Ladakh that’s why I keep going back every year. I have never seen any place in the world, which offers the varied colors, landscapes and terrains that Ladakh offers. Europe is very travel-friendly in terms of the facilities available on the roads but people of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the most friendly people who will go out of their way to help you.
CJ: Which part of the self-driven journey do you enjoy the most - the preparation, the journey or when it is completed?
Tushar: Definitely the journey, after all it’s the experiences on the road and my passion for driving that has got me to do what I am doing today!
CJ: Now that you are living your passion - do you miss your former profession of being a software programmer?
Tushar: Not at all! I wish I had started Adventures Overland 10 years back!