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Ok kids, when I was a kid, I failed geography class once. I went for my exam after studying history all night long, and a geography question paper was placed on my desk. Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement didn’t feature in the questions. The capital of Madhya Pradesh wasn’t Lucknow and to indicate where Afghanistan was on the world map, I drew a big circle around Asia. Children in the nineties remember the good long swinging cane. That cane left sour punks on my hand in school for being a smartass and the mother ensured that didn’t happen again by placing a globe in my room and a map of the world was pasted on my wall. Every day for the rest of my childhood, I read the names of cities and stared at the shapes of countries. When I passed out of school, I wasn’t geographically challenged any more. The Himalayas were in the north, the Arabian sea in the west, the sun rose in the east and Chicken Chettinad tasted best in the south. Almost a decade went by since my sabbatical from geography class, when I committed to a life-long relationship with Google Maps.
When you take up the job of an automotive journalist, travel is inevitable. It starts with attending a press conference in a South Mumbai hotel, and if you are starting up in Mumbai, you’ll need a map to go to South Mumbai. Then your boss sends you on a drive in the Himalayas. Google Maps may not help you there but paper maps will. By the time you’ve spent over half a decade writing about cars or motorcycles, you’ve written about your travels more than a few times too. Sometimes, help comes from the outside. Hyundai for instance is very committed to preparing me for a PhD in Indian geography. A year and a half ago, the Korean carmaker invited us to what was at the time the first Great India Drive. It was with the Hyundai Creta back then and we drove for thousands of kilometres in it over a few days. We saw a lot and learnt a lot. Maybe towards the end of the drive, I should have taken my geography exam again. Guess what, Hyundai is at it again. I took a flight to Delhi and drove to McLeodganj for my next geography class, and my professor for the next week was the Hyundai Tucson. Welcome to the second edition of the Great India Drive.
On that pleasant Saturday evening in McLeodganj as I opened the curtains of my hotel room to the sight of snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, a breath of fresh air infused energy I would need over the coming week. It was the cold before the summer heat, the crisp air before humid afternoons, the calm before the long days of driving we were going to endure once we embarked on our roadtrip. From the mountains of Himachal to the coasts of Andhra Pradesh, we were going to turn right back to cross the country on our way to Pune, all in a week’s time. Nothing teaches you geography better than a drive around the country. This was the start to a long week on the road, we were going to cross fourteen states, drive on highways, hill roads, no roads, across mountains, along the eastern coast and through the hottest places in the country. It isn’t called the Great India Drive for nothing.
As I connected professor Tucson’s 8-inch infotainment system to my phone over Android Auto on Sunday morning, Google Maps said that I was 4093km away from my destination. Seven days of driving through the country, most of it going down south. But on our first day, we were driving in the mountains, going further north and little westwards towards the beautiful town of Dalhousie.
The Tucson is a comfortable cruiser and handles city conditions with the calmness of a monk, but its 2-litre diesel unit is capable of generating a lot of speed; speed we’d need on the highways and acceleration we were going to require on the winding roads of Himachal Pradesh. A quick downhill descent as we got out of the neighbouring town of Dharamshala and on to the winding road that leads to Dalhousie with the snowcapped mountains in my rear view mirrors. We were driving in perfect weather in the month of April, something you don’t get to say often. The melting snow in Himachal keeps the weather pleasant through the day with a nice nip in the air as the sun begins to set at this time of the year. Usually, it’s good to start a drive early in the morning because it’s cool, there’s less traffic and it gets easier to munch miles. But here, it doesn’t matter. The weather is always pleasant, traffic is something you don’t need to be worried about except while passing towns and the landscape and the skies are always beautiful.
Geography also teaches you a lot about temperatures, topographies and changing climatic conditions. The difference in a coastal breeze to the wind chills in snowcapped mountains, how the dry cold in Delhi differs from the moist coolness of Himachal Pradesh. You learn to appreciate the healthy lifestyle here, the importance of natural physical exercise by just climbing the slopes and the sheer absence of gyms up here. Life is tougher but better up here, and driving is also a more pleasurable experience. The Tucson is a big SUV but is highly manoeuvrable due to its light steering so it makes my life easy on these winding mountain roads. Of over 4,000km that we were to embark on, initial impressions were proving to be very reassuring. The Tucson is very comfortable, has a fantastic set of front seats and the ride quality is just right. It gets better with speed and requires little effort to steer. When you are constantly steering from one bend to another over a long day of driving, as little effort required to steer is appreciated.
The mountain road from Dharamshala descends to the Mandi-Pathankot highway where a few stretches of straights could test the deep reserves of the diesel engine. The Tucson makes light work of these few straights, indicating an easy drive once we got on to the dual carriageways of Punjab and UP. Since Himachal is sparsely populated and ambient noise is much lower throughout the state, you can hear a lot more of the car while driving. But with the windows up and the Tucson’s tacho firmly in its mid-range, it was hard to hear anything inside the cabin. The Tucson makes 183 horsepower from its 2-litre mill, but does it progressively and quietly. Refinement is an asset on long drives. It tires you a lot less and you will also notice fewer breaks during long drives. Our first day was going to be a short drive though, only 140km between McLeodganj and Dalhousie, but we were going to take the long and scenic route via Khajjiar.
The road twists and turns from Lahru to Chowari, but once you cross Chowari, it begins to climb too and is a single lane tarmac road all the way to Dalhousie. There are better roads to get to Dalhousie but this one’s the scenic one. Once you cross Jot, proceed towards Khajjiar before turning off to Dalhousie. The entire drive is about a mountain road that’s great in parts and broken in most, and a sheer drop lines either the left or the right depending on the side of the mountain you are on, but when you get to Khajjiar, the landscape teleports you to the grassy meadows of Switzerland. Even in all the beauty of Himachal, Khajjiar stands out, stuns you when you get out of a narrow mountain road to the meadow lined street and takes you around this big meadow towards a short drive towards Dalhousie.
Khajjiar’s natural beauty is breathtaking with tall trees, a fluorescent green grassy meadow and a small lake in between. Even the Swiss recognise the beauty of this place to be similar to the lands they live in. This small town is a part of the Chamba district and from Khajjiar, we proceeded to Dalhousie, where through the dense forested mountain slopes, we were hoping to see the sun set over Punjab. The route took us to the western side of Dalhousie where the plains of Punjab can be seen, and the view is to die for, because you are high up in the mountains watching the end of the Himalayas tower over and feed the fertile plains of Punjab with mountain water all year long.
We started our drive from McLeodganj with a plan to chase the sun all through this drive. And just before the sun vanished behind an adjoining mountain, we got a glimpse of it with the Tucson in frame. Dalhousie gave us a glimpse of the evenings we would encounter over the coming week.
It’s a fraction of the thousands of kilometres the Tucson was going to gallop through but that’s how special the Himalayas are. Every day in these mountains is one to cherish. You are constantly changing elevation, changing direction and even encountering surfaces that give the car’s suspension a proper beating. The Tucson kept us fresh through a day in the mountains, highlighting its fantastic touring ability. It is an SUV you can cover long distances in and we were going to call upon its strengths in the coming days. I wasn’t thinking about the wide open highways though. When you are driving in the Himalayas, you are always present in the moment. Nothing you do here is a subconscious act or muscle memory. You are alive in the mountains, feeding off its energy, refreshing yours and that’s why driving here will give you the Thrill of Driving that’s otherwise hard to find.
In this month’s geography lesson then, we’ve learnt that Geography is more than what you learn in text books. It’s more interesting when you are on your feet or in your car, exploring the country or the world. You can replace your books with a car and progress further, and that progress is easier with a competent SUV like the Tucson. Geography is all about going places, and a steed that takes you places is your best teacher.