Last December, Nidhi Tiwari made headlines when she drove 23,800 km from Delhi to London in 97 days in an all-woman expedition with her friends. This year, she's set to make news again with another extreme expedition.
Tiwari has just completed a 5,000 km road trip in Siberia during the peak of the region's infamously harsh winter. She is the first Indian to drive to Oymyakon, considered to be the coldest permanently inhabited place on earth. "I have an innate need to put myself out there and test my limits," Tewari told HuffPost India during her drive. "So after Delhi to London, it had to be a bigger challenge."
The route she chose was a loop from Yakutsk, the world's coldest major city, to the port town of Magadan and back. The 13-day solo trip took Tiwari through the Siberian wilderness, with temperatures as low as minus 59 degree celsius and on roads that are built on permafrost and are notoriously difficult to drive on. The highlight of the trip was Oymyakon, also known as the Pole of Cold.
The transcontinental Delhi-London trip set the stage for this extreme overland expedition, which she describes as her most challenging one till date. "Last year, the extreme factor came in the form of distance and sheer scale," Tiwari added. "This one is much more technically and physically intense. The extreme part comes in terms of the weather and the remote landscape."
"I have an innate need to put myself out there and test my limits."
Tiwari had no reference points for Siberia's harsh terrain in India, but drove in high-altitude areas in 2016 to build up her stamina at the wheel, and learn more about her vehicle, the Toyota Land Cruiser. "It was the most intense trip I have undertaken though it was short because of the uncertainty," Tiwari said. "It is so easy to vanish off the face of the earth in such an area."
Each day had to be meticulously planned, with Tiwari figuring out details of fuel stations, food and accommodation. She drove for nearly 10-12 hours a day, often in darkness, since the region only gets three hours of daylight in winter. She survived on raw and frozen meat, spending most of her time in the heated vehicle to protect herself from the chill outside.
The trip, which cost between ₹8 and ₹10 lakh, was organised as an educational expedition about this remote region's bitterly cold climate and terrain, in partnership with 15 schools in India. Tiwari has also been interacting with the students of these schools who have been following her journey closely.
"You see the mettle that you are made of. These are journeys within more than outside."
Despite the bitter cold, Tiwari experienced some surreal moments, such as driving on an icy road at night amid a quiet, mild snowfall. "The sheer landscape -- fresh, white and undisturbed," Tiwari said. "It felt like it was just me, the vehicle and the road. When you travel to these corners of the world, you realise the struggles people undertake and become grateful for what you have."
Tiwari says her expeditions are as much about self-discovery as adventure. "This expedition has been an emotional potboiler," she said. "You see the mettle that you are made of. These are journeys within more than outside."
Despite the extreme nature of the drive, Tiwari chose to go solo. "I tend to undertake extreme expeditions, which are hugely challenging physically and emotionally." Tiwari said. "My focus is to typically complete the task at hand. I feel unless the other person or people are extremely in sync or weathered like you, it becomes very difficult and I end up spending more energy handling the team than focusing on the task at hand."
The 35-year-old took to adventure at an early age, encouraged by her mother to go on hikes and treks and become more independent. She went on her first Himalayan hike in Bhutan at the age of 11 and learnt driving at 22. "I had been an adventure trip leader, and used to the outdoors since I was very young," Tewari said. "So pushing the boundaries both within and outside is something that came naturally to me."
"I have lived and always believed that women should not be confined to boundaries that they themselves set or that society sets for them."
She didn't give up on her love of the outdoors, even after marriage and two children. After she had her first son in Ladakh, she continued hiking, carrying him in a carrier. "However, when the second one came along, I had to take both of them," Tiwari said. "Leaving them was not an option." In 2006, she assembled a second-hand jeep with the help of a friend, and started taking off-road trips on weekends, driving on rough terrain to test the vehicle and herself as a driver. "I now know how machines work and that gives me the confidence to undertake these extreme drives," she explained.
Though she is supported by her two sons and her husband, who she met at an outdoor activity event, Tiwari initially had a hard time getting her parents to accept her inclinations. "My parents struggled to make sense of my interests and passion when I was growing up," Tiwari said. "It was a tumultuous time and then they were proud. I think my family is still trying to figure out my DNA."
Her first long-expedition happened in 2007, when she drove from Bangalore to Ladakh. After the Delhi to London trip last year, Tiwari channelled her vision to start Women Beyond Boundaries, an organisation that offers extreme overland journeys, especially for women. "I have lived and always believed that women should not be confined to boundaries that they themselves set or that society sets for them," Tiwari said.
"The stereotype exists everywhere. Women worldwide are considered to be bad drivers. What changes is the degree and intensity of disbelief."
Despite her extreme adventures, Tiwari says she has never been afraid. "I have never felt fear. I have done solo hiking and travel for an eternity. At the end of the day, you are scared if you are uncertain. If you are sure of your planning, food and logistics there is no fear. As far as safety is concerned, anything can happen to anybody. It is about common sense, presence of mind and working knowledge."
Yet, Tiwari's travels have made her acutely aware of the widespread bias against women drivers. "The stereotype exists everywhere. Women worldwide are considered to be bad drivers. What changes is the degree and intensity of disbelief," Tiwari said. "On the highway, you find very few women drivers. Like I say, driving is a skill and is gender-neutral. The more you practice, the better you get."