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“IMPOSSIBLE!” “C’mon man, it can’t be impossible.”
“This is impossible!”
“Yes Sirish! It won’t go! It’s so steep! It’s so narrow! It’s so dangerous!”
“Umm… but won’t it make for a good story?”
“What’s wrong with you???”
Oh shit, have I bitten off more than I can chew?
Let’s take a step back. Ten steps actually. This is the tenth year of the Polo in India. I still remember the hype leading up to the launch of the small Volkswagen. There were those road-block newspaper ads, the talking paper, the inauguration of the vast plant in Pune, the non-stop stream of press events leading up to the price announcement. And then there was the media drive itself, a sea of red Polos spilling out of the parking lot of the Taj in Bandra — to date, a manufacturer hasn’t laid out such a vast fleet on a media launch. It really was something else.
And it was ages ago. I was much younger. I edited another magazine. Social media wasn’t the many-headed monster that it is today. And after discovering India is an altogether different kettle of fish, VW have hit the reset button. In the intervening period, Volkswagen also transformed the motorsport landscape of our country by launching the first professionally managed and organised single-make racing series. A few years later the TDI engines of the Polo Cup were swapped for TSI, then the body shell switched to the Vento and now young racers start their career with the Ameo Cup. And in the middle of it, when a bunch of enthusiasts wanted to go rallying, the factory went out of their way to support the privately-entered project with parts, tech support and even a payable-when-able credit system.
That team, Slideways Industries, was what led to the magazine you’re holding in your hands. No, really. While my fellow founding editors and I were running the rally team we realised there wasn’t a magazine with an enthusiast-enough bent to its editorial ethos, and that is what led us to bring the world’s number 1 enthusiast motoring magazine to India. True story. In a not-so-round-about-way, the Polo is what led to evo India! At our peak we had seven cars in the team (and on the long term fleet of this magazine!), a foreign driver, team championship in the bag and the country’s first Arrive and Drive program, that is still active today.
Naturally then, for the tenth year of the Polo in India, a celebration was due. But what could we do that hasn’t already been done?
Sandakphu is in the Himalayas, except not in the Himalayas we keep running to for every driving adventure. This is the highest peak in West Bengal, just north of Darjeeling, and on a clear day you can see four of the five highest peaks in the world — Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. In consequence it is immensely popular with trekkers who say the views are panoramic, stretching from west to east taking in the peaks of Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan and even Arunachal.
As spectacular as Ladakh, the eastern Himalayas swap out the barren nothingness for evergreen pine forests that blanket equally mighty mountains, and for added pizzazz, pepper it with bright red rhododendrons and white magnolias. April is when the flowers are in full bloom, the views bright and clear, and you might even spot the Red Panda. It’s the perfect time to attempt something silly. Except, everything is blanketed in thick fog.
Nobody is saying I told you so but it is writ large across their faces. My colleagues spent the best part of a month convincing me of the impossibility of taking a car on a 4×4 track and, when I proved that humans can be even more stubborn than donkeys, they spent the last four days driving the Polo GT TDI together with our long term test Tiguan up from Pune. I have no idea of the terrain or the challenge, I’ve never been to Sandakphu, I only know the drive makes for extraordinarily spectacular photographs.
This is the so-called Land of Land Rover. Literally ever since Land Rover made the first Land Rover these 4x4s have been the only thing capable of plying this narrow rock trail to ferry locals, forest officials, planters and their produce, and trekkers who couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way up. It’s something about the terrain that just suits the Landie — very steep so you need low ratio to climb up and then back crawl down at slower than walking pace so as not to understeer off the edge of the mountain; a narrow track for the narrow trail; perfect visibility to drive right on the edge; massive ground clearance to clear the boulders; a tight turning circle for the hairpins; and in the absence of a seat belt, a war surplus parachute should something go wrong.
That’s the challenge. No, not using a parachute, but driving the Polo on the Sandakphu trail. The idea is to see how far the Polo can go on the 4×4 trail. The idea is not to diss any 4×4, I must clarify. It’s to put a car to its ultimate test — a test of strength, power, durability, safety, and the chops of the driver behind the ’wheel — and discover just what a car we’ve praised for so long can do.
Bagdogra is the closest airport and from there it is a two-and-a-bit hour drive as you rapidly escape the heat and climb the hills. We’ve set up base at Mirik, a typically messy and congested hill-side village which is reputed to have the most liveable hotel this side of the chaos of Darjeeling or the plantation homestays. While the rest of the country is sweltering in 40 plus degree heat, Mirik, in the afternoon, demands a light sweater and the next morning we pull out our puffy jackets and hoodies. It’s six, the temperature is 8 degrees, the sun is already up and to escape the freezing rain I jump into the Polo.
It’s familiar environs, of course, but it has also been a while since I last drove the GT TDI. This is the one with the updated 1.5-litre TDI engine in place of the earlier 1.6 and going by the number of times my colleagues have asked if we can keep the Polo for a long term test after we’re done with this drive, I’m assuming the 2500km drive from Pune has impressed them strongly.
My first impressions are of surprise. Let’s be honest here, the Polo is ten years old. These days three-year -old cars get the word dated liberally chucked into road tests. A ten -year-old car should have no hope in hell but the Polo doesn’t feel old. The car still looks handsome. The dash, all black in the GTs, still looks nice and the flat-bottomed steering wheel is actually the best you can get in a hatchback. With the steering wheel adjustable for reach and rake along with height adjust for the driver you can get a good driving position, albeit at the expense of the guys sitting at the back, and then there’s the engine. We will need the engine!
Manebhanjang is where it all starts, where the automotive landscape transforms. Up here it is all Sumos and Spacious, all with 500 people loaded in, but the second you get to Manebhanjang it’s like you’ve been strapped into a time machine and flung back 50 years. It’s all Land Rovers and their sole purpose is to make the climb to Sandakphu. They don’t even go to Mirik, which has the closest fuel station, preferring instead to buy their petrol, in black, at 90 bucks a litre. And when we go to register our cars at the forest check post there’s a whole lot of amusement. A ‘chotti gaadi’ to Sandakphu? Ha ha ha ha ha.
Manebhanjang is at 8530 feet and over 30km, the trail climbs up to 11,930 feet to reach Sandakphu. Each hairpin, and there are nearly 70 of them, has an average climb of 30 feet. And the climbing starts as soon as you pay the permit fees (`500 per car, `100 per person). This is the reason we asked for the GT TDI — 108bhp is great to have but we will need all the torque we can lay our hands on and with 250Nm, the GT TDI is the torquiest of all the hatchbacks out there.
It’s the torque that makes quick work of the hairpins, keeps the revs above 1700rpm and it chugs up the hairpins without running out of breath. Climb, climb, climb, climb, the Polo hauls itself up to Chitrey where we pull over and take stock. The place is shrouded in clouds. We want to take some pictures with the prayer flags but it is barely visible. We dig into our packed breakfast, clean the cars, kill time but the fog only becomes thicker and the cold gets into our bones. It’s also raining and that’s making the roads wet, an added worry. You see, we don’t have four-wheel drive.
Actually we do have four-wheel drive. That’s our Tiguan bringing up the rear and loaded to the roof with photo and video gear, food, and the photo and video crew. We might be crazy to accept mad challenges but we aren’t stupid. You don’t go in without backup and in the Tiguan we have the perfect back-up vehicle that also neatly bookmarks Volkswagen’s Indian range. The Tiguan is in Off Road mode that tweaks the engine and DSG gearbox mapping, 4WD assistance and ESP intervention, to make it safe and secure with a nervous crew in tow. The wet hairpins don’t pose headaches thanks to the grip from the 4Motion drivetrain. It even has Hill Descent Control so it doesn’t feel out of its depth.
The Polo, it has nothing. With only FWD the wheels are spinning so I’m now using momentum to make it up the steep and tight hairpins, also discovering the inside rear wheel likes to get a bit of air. This inside wheel lift I experienced a fair bit of while rallying the Polo and the wallpaper on my phone is of me at last year’s Popular Rally, getting the inside wheel to lift at what must be well over 150 clicks. It all ties in to what we discovered when we first built the Polo for rallying — the body shell is so torsionally rigid it didn’t even need a front strut brace; it didn’t need any extra stiffness.
It’s that same torsional rigidity that makes the Polo such a solid road car, delivering a ride and handling balance that is still the best in its class. And the strength of the body shell is what makes it so safe, so safe if anything were to go wrong. It’s a consideration that did weigh on our minds while attempting this drive — when the car feels safe and has the stars to prove it your mind is more open to accepting slightly madder challenges.
Anyway, back to our three-wheeling up hairpins, putting that TDI motor through a good workout, mindful not to slip the clutch and abuse it. We’re driving nearly blind, through a thick soup of fog, and 3km later are at Meghma, where I’m told you get all those spectacular Great Wall-like pictures. Except we cannot see anything save for our toes. A quick cup of black tea with salt (not sure how but I’m sure it helps with the altitude) and we resume our drive, now encountering more boulders, more rough roads, more slush thanks to the rain.
A good thing though is the hairpins are mostly concrete so the stock Apollo tyres can find purchase. The bad thing is there are huge steps where the concrete starts and ends, made for the ground clearance of an off-roader, and which has to be taken very gingerly lest you wipe out the low-hanging nose of the Polo. So crawl over the step, use all the power of the GT, and climb, climb, climb.
Two hours of this, past Tumling at 9600 feet and we are at Gairibas where we have lunch and turn back. It’s pouring, it’s foggy, even Landy drivers are being advised not to go to Sandakphu because of snow. That’s that, at least for the day.
Next morning we’re up and out at five. The cars are washed clean with the overnight rain and so are the roads. The skies have opened up. And just before we reach Manebhanjang we see the most beautiful twin rainbow, ever. Using international roaming on Nepal’s NCell I feed the social media monster, the forest check post waves the entry fee since yesterday was rained out (the hill people are really, really nice), we’re reminded yet again not to use the drone (the track goes in and out of Nepal, it’s all on the border) and we begin our climb. At Chitrey the skies are clear, the air fresh, the vistas unbelievably spectacular. Every phone, every camera, everybody starts firing away. I breathe a sigh of relief. Finally we’re getting some content in the bag.
At Meghma we wipe up the cars and fire away the Great Wall pictures. At Tumling we get the clouds below the cars climbing up the hairpins. At Gairibas we swig some black tea with salt and then man up for the climb.
This is where it gets crazy. There’s no tarmac, it’s all rocks of varying shapes and sizes. We keep the Polo light, just me behind the wheel and whoever fancies jumping in and out, spotting obstacles on the way. We’re crawling along at walking pace, very careful not to hole the sump or rip out the front end on the nasty rocks. And it’s a race against the clouds that are fast moving in. Making life even more difficult the overnight rain has left the rocks wet and slippery so finding purchase is becoming harder and harder. I’m now slipping the clutch, giving it a kick in the middle of the hairpin to get the revs to jump into the meat of its power band. This isn’t easy, not by a long shot. But this is where the Polo gets our respect.
The suspension, if you remember, was once too soft at the front and would scrunch the nose on sharp bumps. It doesn’t do that anymore. The ground clearance does not look like much, and on the highway it does not feel unstable like all high-riding cars, but we discover it is actually pretty good and nothing touches. The GT now runs on 16-inch tyres and that delivers both better clearance as well as great grip, no matter what the surface. Once or twice we scrape the mudguards on the very sharp storm-water drains and very often rocks have to be cleared out of the path, but the Polo isn’t saying enough.
Up here in pure 4×4 terrain, this is where it gets even more spectacular; the red flowers are in bloom, the views of the valley are astonishing, the peace, quiet and isolation extraordinary. Rohit pull out his 500mm lens in the elusive hope of spotting the Red Panda. What he gets are vultures. We also spot snow-capped Himalayan peaks, though without somebody with any experience to say what is what we can’t say for sure that we sighted the Kanchenjunga. Inch by inch the Polo climbs, the photographers fire away, and the crew run out of breath at this altitude.
At a small hamlet a local comes up and asks if the Polo is a ‘four wheel gaari’ the local lingo for four-wheel drive. When I say no he’s shocked. Tashi, our Landie driver says he can recall only one other car that has gotten all the way up here, an Omni that the taxi association of Darjeeling guys pushed and brought up here in response to a challenge from Sandakphu’s Land Rover drivers’ association. Come to think of it, the Polo is possibly the only FWD car to get up here.
And then the rain comes down. Hard. Hari and Aatish are soaked to the bone, guiding me up the track that gets more treacherous the higher up it climbs. I can’t see a thing. The Land Rover is in 4-Low and sliding around in slush. With momentum the Polo is making it through the slush but I’m scared now, if the Polo slides it will slide off the mountain. And I am not wearing a parachute. Momentum is the only way to make it through the slush, for the rest I’m driving as slowly as possible, just like you should when driving off-road, to ensure you can return to base on your own steam.
And the Polo is responding. It is going. Two days of pounding it on ridiculously difficult terrain and it is not squeaking or rattling; the body hasn’t twisted itself into a knot. The tyres are slipping even more now, the rain is coming down harder, the visibility is back to what it was yesterday, but every time we think this is it, the Polo takes a step forward. Also the fact that turning around means physically lifting the Polo and turning it around, is adding an extra layer of motivation.
With 5km to go, we meet with our forward crew who went up to Sandakphu a few hours earlier, to sort out lunch and bank some pictures of snow-clad peaks. It’s snowing, heavily. There’s no visibility, there’s too much slush, and there’s no way even a 4×4 will go up. This time I don’t argue. Sliding till the edge of a 10,000 foot drop has a way of calming over exuberance.
However we do need a destination to close the story so we motor for another kilometre till Kalipokhri, a place that takes its name from the black lake. Apparently this lake never freezes over, it always looks black, and there’s an eerie haunted quality to it. Or so we’re told, we can barely make out the outline of the lake in the pouring rain! We find a chorten, a Tibetan Stupa, park the car, get soaked to the bone doing a piece for the camera and then head back down.
We check the altimeter. 10,400 feet. That’s 1530 feet and five odd kilometres short of Sandakphu. To be sure the terrain gets even harsher, even more difficult the closer we get to the summit, and we can debate whether the Polo could have made it all the way. It would have been difficult, no question, but if the weather had permitted we’d have tried it, that’s for sure. So the question you all asked on Twitter and Instagram, can a hatchback make it to Sandakphu? With something like the Polo you have a much better chance, that’s for sure. It’s safe, strong, powerful, reliable, and (once again!) feels safe enough to attempt such a challenge.
What I will also tell you is don’t try this with a hatchback. If you break down the track is so narrow, there will be no way for anything to get past. You’ll cause havoc to the lives of the locals and they will then ban any private cars from going up. Everybody’s life, I can tell you, will be much better if you attempt it with a 4×4, like the Tiguan. But I also learnt that when it comes to the Polo, the impossible is not exactly impossible; it’s a car that keeps coming back for more