A road trip to the lesser Himalayas with Hyundai Venue: Great Driving Road|Part 3
In this edition of the Great Drivng Roads series we headed to the Himalayas in the Hyundai Venue. We started out from Dehradun, headed through the plains along the foothills of the Himalayas for a quick warm up, then began our climb in to the mountains. Read on to know why a compact SUV like the Hyundai Venue is the best fit for the narrow, but undeniably fun roads of the Himalayas.
We started before dawn. I've always thought Dehradun was a small city, but it turned out to be larger than I expected. And it wakes up early. 6am and the streets were bustling. Shops might still have been shut but the runners and cyclists were out, along with a ridiculous number of cars and scooters. I’d never seen a city so crowded, so early. Dehradun sits smack bang at the base of the Himalayas. A part of city even lies on those foothills that rise up from the plains. The Dehradun-Mussourie road is possibly the most popular way up to the mountains, but that wasn’t where we were starting. We needed to get the juices flowing. We needed a road that was undemanding on man and machine, allowing me to recalibrate to driving the Hyundai Venue hard, before we began our ascent to the mountains. The road towards Jauligrant provided exactly that.
Note to self: The easiest way to find this road towards Jauligrant is to point yourself in the direction of the airport, but make sure you take the interior road via Raipur. Once past the crossroad that doubles up as the Raipur bus stand, you’ll notice the urban sprawl around you fade away into golden-yellow fields. You can get enthusiastic with the throttle from here. Just watch out for rumblers — they seem the kind that you can just hammer over, but they’ve got teeth. That aside, this road is flawless. It’s the perfect warm up. The road sweeps through the countryside with long straights peppered with perfectly cambered, sweeping bends. The pitch-black surface is unblemished and perfectly marked.
By the time the sun rose, we were snaking through the dense forests that surround the town of Jauligrant. Shafts of golden light shone through the gaps in the canopy like divine spotlights, but there was no time to read the signs He was sending us. We had a road to attack. As the Hyundai Venue warmed up to the road, I warmed up to the Venue. Having run one as a long-termer last year, the cabin was a familiar place. It was easy to find my preferred driving position and get the MID set up to the screen I wanted — Trip 1, with the odo zeroed at the hotel. What took longer to get to grips with was the drivetrain — this was a turbo-petrol, while I used to run the diesel. As punchy as the diesel was, the more I drove this T-GDI engine, the more I was convinced that this was the better engine for a quick blast through the mountains like this. The revs rose and fell more quickly, it sounded more enthusiastic and it had a lightness to the way it went about things; something that was missing from the diesel. And yes, we had the manual.
Note to self: Once past the airport, hang a left towards Rishikesh. Exercise restraint through the town of Ranipokhari but fret not, you will get another quick blast through the forests soon after. Rishikesh approaches far quicker than intended, but don’t get sucked in there. Keep an eye out for a signboard that points towards Narendra Nagar. As hard as it is to turn off this seemingly perfect road onto one that is far less impressive, you must. Better roads lie ahead, I promise.
The climb up to Narendra Nagar was a sombre reminder of why SUVs are so effective at road-tripping in India. And why compact SUVs seem to have exploded onto the scene. These roads are narrow. Your speed on these roads, much like in a crowded city, is inversely proportional to the width of your car. And with a small footprint like the Venue’s, I could keep up a healthy pace. This was our first taste of the mighty Himalayas — a proper climb with switchbacks, blind turns and straight patches that were only long enough for you to get the turbo spooled up in second, before they forced you to lift off for another corner. The Venue proved to be an eager companion. With a direct steering and short wheelbase, it darted between the corners enthusiastically.
This climb up to Narendra Nagar also seems to be extremely prone to landslides. There were rocks strewn across the road in multiple places — many times, around blind corners. So while the temptation to push the car was strong, I held back and reminded myself that one rock could end this drive prematurely. Pro tip: The fresh mountain air may tempt you to open the sunroof, don’t. I swear I heard the clang of stone against metal above my head at some point.
Note to self: You will join the main road on the outside of a wide hairpin bend. Pick the road heading uphill. At this point, you will realise you have bypassed not just Rishikesh, but Narendra Nagar as well. The road is an immediate improvement from what you endured not too long ago, and you will quickly approach another similarly wide hairpin bend. You can take it enthusiastically, but it is a mere teaser. Soon you will realise that what you believed to be the ‘main road’ was but a feeder road to a much larger highway. The road up to Chamba. 42km of absolute bliss.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. If it wasn’t for the parched landscape, the familiar number plates and the occasional temple on the side of the road, I could have sworn we were in Europe. The Rishikesh-Tehri highway was one of the nicest mountain roads I have been on in a long time. It was wide — enough for three cars to drive side by side, with an ample shoulder on either side. Once again, the road was perfectly marked — solid white lines on the sides, a broken white line in the centre that turned solid when a corner approached. Signboards indicated when a hairpin approached, while cats eyes lined the sides of the highway — all adding to the abundance of visual cues that make driving on this road so much more engaging. Traffic was minimal and well behaved. Apparently this road was finished just four months ago, but don’t take my word for it — I’m just repeating what our unreliable cabbie told me.
I floored it in the Venue. The needle darted to the redline, falling momentarily as I slotted it into third before picking itself up again. I lifted off before the first corner — an easy sighted right-hander — and chucked the car in. The Venue has always been an enthusiastic handler, and it proved to be so again and again, the further up the road we got. It is one of the more stiffly sprung cars in the Hyundai range — not as soft as say, the i20 or the Creta — but that stiffness lends it great poise around bends. The front end reacts very predictably to your inputs, and while sharp, it never feels unsettled. This surefootedness is at odds with its tall stance, but this compact SUV can genuinely put a smile on your face when you thread a set of corners perfectly in it. For the first few kilometres, I worked the engine — shifting up and down between corners, extracting as much performance as I could from this pint-sized package. But I found that keeping it in third and riding the torque — shifting to second only for the really tight or steep stuff — and building a rhythm to be far more enjoyable. This left enough room for error, not just mine but for everyone else I was sharing the road with. And it allowed me to focus on my lines and just get the car to flow with the road, instead of trying to beat it into submission. Another pro tip: If you’re waiting to overtake a bus, don’t hang too close behind it. Very often, a head pops out of the window and promptly disgorges its half-digested breakfast into the wind.
Note to self: The town of Chamba is a typical Indian mountain town. After that spectacular climb, you will slow down to a crawl. The shops along the main market road overflow onto the already narrow streets, while two-way traffic flows on what should be a one-way road. Head left at the first junction you hit, and continue straight at the second junction. It will be the most crowded between these two junctions, but the houses and the traffic will slowly thin away as you find yourself on the road to Kanatal.
I’m a firm believer that not all road trips have to be about the roads, or even the cars. Some can be about the sights, the places and the people. What I liked the most about this circuit is that it provided a bit of everything. The road stays narrow after Chamba and while for the most part it is well surfaced, there are fairly long patches of broken tarmac. It is still a road that you can enjoy if you’re focussed on the sensations from behind the wheel, but slowing down to take in the sights will make it worth your while as well. The road climbs up even further. I had rolled the windows down (sunroof stayed shut!) and could feel the temperature dip as the altitude rose. The vegetation changed as well — erect ferns taking the place of the deciduous trees that lined the roads a few kilometres earlier. I swear the air smelt different, but Rohit disagreed. Pray, what was that condition where you lose your sense of smell?
Note to self: Keep driving past Dhanolti and Landour. The road is narrow and the drops are steep. There are a few tricky decreasing radius turns that spring up without warning, so be careful! You will skirt the hill station of Mussoorie. Don’t bother entering it unless you grew up reading Ruskin Bond — he frequents the Cambridge Book Depot and you might run into him. Instead, hang a left and you’ll find yourself on a wide highway that snakes down the mountain, similar to the road to Chamba, just a little more crowded and showing visible signs of age. The Dehradun-Mussoorie road. You’ve come full circle.
I didn’t need to think about driving the Hyundai Venue any more. Having spent so much time in it, the driving just happened, and my mind wandered. Inevitably, it began thinking about the day gone by. This route we were on offered such variety — the forests along the foothills, the narrow mountain roads up to Narendra Nagar, the immaculate stretch of tarmac up to Chamba, the views around Dhanolti. It was a microcosm of grander Himalayan expeditions, without the intimidating bits — the planning, the altitude, the lack of connectivity. Amateurs will enjoy this route as it gives them a taste of the greatest mountains on Earth without putting them in the way of the very real dangers the upper Himalayas pose, while more experienced drivers can enjoy the roads for what they are. Add Uttarakhand to your driving bucket list, if it isn’t on already!