Hyundai Great India Drive: Exploring the allure of Football in the North-East
Hyundai's Great India Drive has taken us on some incredible journeys in the two previous iterations but personally this year's Great India Drive would be my first. First time out of the evo India HQ on a drive of this scale, in fact. Set to be a daunting seven day journey grazing the north eastern parts of the country starting from Kolkata and ending in Imphal, saying I was excited would be an understatement. On this drive we would be exploring parts of the country rarely explored by others in the Hyundai Venue. Why the North-East? Simple, our goal was to showcase how football unites the nation and what better place to do it than the most football crazy part of the country!
Our drive started at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata, where we awaited the arrival of our chariot for the next week -- the Hyundai Venue. After the car arrived, we stuffed the boot to the brim with our bags and headed to watch the India v Bangladesh FIFA World Cup qualifier straight from the airport. Seeing the hoards of football fans as we got closer to the stadium already felt different. The buzz outside the stadium was out of this world and we were set for a cracker of a game. Bangladesh silenced the crowd with the first goal just before the first half ended. The atmosphere was grim but with half an hour left on the clock, Team India gained a second wind and did attack after attack, met with thunderous backing from the supporters who knew a comeback was imminent. Adil Khan scored for India with just minutes to spare and helped us level with Bangladesh, the crowd went absolutely crazy. The floor beneath our stand was actually shaking with the sheer excitement around the stadium, everyone was on their feet and all we could hear was the roar of the crowd shouting “India, India!” on top of their voices. It was electric. Since It was a group stage game so there was no extra time and the match ended on terms with a point to each team.
The next morning we explored the city of Kolkata and also visited local football clubs. To begin our first leg of the drive we headed around 200km north of Kolkata to Behrampore in West Bengal, our night halt. We were trusting Google Maps to help us find our way. In hindsight when it made us turn off the highway onto very narrow village roads we should have double checked by simply asking the locals. With our luck on-board, surely, we came to a dead end with a huge river ahead of us. Yikes. We asked some locals on what is the way forward and, after they laughed at our navigation system, they told us a bamboo raft would come and take the car across. Yikes again. We took a leap of faith, gently put our car on the rickety raft and reached the other side of the river. We could finally breathe again. It was just day one of our drive and we’d already done the scariest thing I have ever done with a car. The rest of the drive involved quaint village roads where the compact dimensions of the Venue came into their own.After a good night’s rest, we continued our journey the next morning to Siliguri. The route took us within walking distance of the India-Bangladesh border and we found locals playing a game of football from where we could literally see the fence separating the two nations. Team evo India joined in, scored some goals, had a few laughs and continued onwards to our destination. Siliguri is a pretty large town -- the roads leading up to the city and inside were great, there were good hotels, we even found a mall where we went to eat a well-deserved meal.
The next day we got up way too early although the sunlight outside didn’t suggest so. The sun rises super early in these parts and consequently sets around 5pm, as we were so far east and coming from the western coast of the country. We had our eyes set toward Guwahati, it was going to be a long drive already but surely, to further help the ETA our photographers found a scenic spot and a good hour and a half was spent shooting the Venue. The backdrop was gorgeous though, I will admit.We hit the road again and drove through some of the most breathtaking landscapes I had ever seen with lush greenery on both sides, blue skies above, smooth tarmac below and since we had the punchy 1-litre turbo petrol Venue at our disposal, some spirited driving ensued. Our drive to Guwahati took us deep into the night on roads littered with huge potholes that posed their own set of challenges for the Venue’s suspension. What made it worse is that the roads were unlit so the pothole would only be spotted at the last moment causing us to give the Venue's brakes a workout. Obviously no one got rest in the car that night so once we reached our hotel we could barely even eat dinner, with our eyes half open and our brains completely asleep.
The next day’s drive from Guwahati to Shillong was completely different -- the road was like a combination of corners from racetracks around the world put into this one route, besides that the road surface was fantastic, there were reflectors showing the path ahead and the traffic was minimal, It was the perfect time to put the Venue through its paces and corner after corner I was finding the handling to be a joy with the accurate steering and DCT gearbox only keeping things spirited.
Day five of the drive was to take us from Shillong to Silchar, another early morning but just ten minutes into the drive we came across locals playing street football! Ashamed at our grogginess we rubbed our eyes and joined in with them. We obviously got thrashed but that just shows that there is real talent in these parts of the country, and not in our office. Later in the day we found ourselves close to the India-Bangladesh border again, this time my phone even latched onto their local network rather than our own! We saw the marvellous River Dawki on the way. We crossed some beautiful grasslands with hills and relished the winding roads through them. There were numerous football grounds set up all around the place with small games being played in them by kids and adults alike!
Our final day of the drive was an eight hour journey from Silchar to our ultimate destination, Imphal. We headed out and got the car washed while we refuelled our stomachs. The glinting Venue looked great but sure enough, just a few kilometres later, the road surface took a turn for the worse and soon it disappeared altogether. The car had a layer of dirt almost a centimetre thick! We were making good progress, however a one way bridge with a long line of cars waiting to cross on both sides halted us in our tracks. We were stuck for a good two hours with the road after the bridge filled with hundreds of trucks further hurting our ETA. We went into a relaxed driving mode and took in the beautiful sights around us. On the way we stopped for a tea break and while I went inside one of the highway dhabas to place the order -- I saw a TV screen inside, which isn’t a big deal but there was a game of football playing instead of cricket and the people watching were even passionately discussing the game with the staff! Boy were we in football land or what? We got refreshed and continued onto our destination. Imphal is a pretty large town, (our hotel even had a pool table!) with decent roads in and around the city. To commemorate the end of the drive we ate as much as our stomach’s would allow and went off to sleep. Aah, rest.
The rest was short lived though, we had to get back to Guwahati to catch our flight and return the car. This was actually the longest leg of our drive, 12 hours on Google Maps but surely it took us a lot longer! We drove through some roads that challenged the very definition of what a road is, there were hundreds of kilometres of un-tarred patches with some stretches rougher than others. We drove late into the night through AH2 which was gravel for a fair few kilometres with tarmac gradually increasing. Soon the road was perfectly alright and actually fun, with playful corners aplenty but suddenly there would be an un-tarred section every kilometre or so. The lack of street lights made it impossible to spot these sections in advance and the Venue’s solid brakes were the only thing helping us keep all four tyres on the car. The road soon became better as we headed into Assam and got on a highway before reaching our hotel in Guwahati at 11:30pm, a full 17 hours after we left in the morning! Saying we were drained would be putting it lightly but we were happy, we had made it.
Over the past week we saw beautifully contrasting landscapes, some great driving roads and some that weren’t even roads. The vastly different cultures across our route was amazing to see and the prominence of football in these parts was almost shocking! The Great India Drive was fantastic, I had the experience of a lifetime and learnt what it is truly like to explore, not with a preset plan but truly explore and take detours wherever your heart desired. I look forward to the next one!