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Images : Rohit Mane
Last month in geography class, we learned about the Himalayas in the north of India. The melting snow, beautifully serpentine roads, towering mountains and freshness in the air that lasts all day is the best way to sum up Himachal Pradesh. As the winding road on the side of Dalhousie bordering Punjab stops twisting on itself, Pathankot is well in sight. You meet Asian Highway 1 that would take you to Lahore on your right in an ideal world. Instead we turn left and proceed towards Delhi as we prepare to spend the next five days with the Tucson exploring India’s plains.
The mesmerising landscape that our country has when the folds of the Himalayas form the backdrop, can easily overshadow the simple flat lands that dominate most of India. Yet there was something to the scale of the drive that drew us east before we would turn south.
We were driving past the fields that feed this nation. The golden wheat plantations in Punjab, the dense forests of Orissa and the coastal freshness of Vizag, all in one go. Fourteen state boundaries were crossed along the way, and by the time the Tucson rolled in to my parking lot in Pune, the trip meter read 4278km. All in the span of six days. Was it just a marathon run then? What’s the point in that!
What I like about the Tucson is that the task to cover such distances doesn’t feel daunting. Our first stint on the wide open roads of Punjab took us past Jalandhar and then Ambala early in the day. By afternoon we were at Murthal, the dhaba capital of India. Murthal has fewer grocery stores than dhabas, and you only get vegetarian food here, but trust me, this place will convert even a carnivore into a herbivore. Everything is cooked in pure ghee, the parathas melt in your mouth and the curries have an authentic local flavour. And most of the dhabas are as good as the next one. They did slow us down, but not enough to get into the capital before rush hour madness began.
The roads are nice but honestly, the drive is boring after you cross Ambala. You find annoying hot-blooded wannabe racers all the time here, trying to go one up on the first guy they spot going pedal to the metal. If there’s one highway where you need to watch your mirrors more than the road ahead, it’s this one. I used cruise control, stuck to the 90kmph speed limit and watched the new road rash movie unfold through the Tucson’s windscreen.
National highways in UP are exceptional. There’s an expressway all the way from Delhi to Lucknow now, the longest in the country, and if you are going anywhere east of Delhi, you at least have the stretch till Agra. Unlike the Punjab to Delhi drive the day before, food on the highway isn’t much to speak about. We were driving to Varanasi though, a place I’ve always looked forward to visiting.
Most people go there to wash away their sins, some go for the stoner life with a bong in one hand and a book in another, I go for the apple pie. The town is on the banks of the Ganges with 87 ghats lining the river bank. The evenings glisten with the light of the Agni puja – a worship of fire that paints the ghats a golden orange. It’s a good time to go to a small eatery called Vaatika Cafe on Assi ghat and watch the show with a plateful of apple pie and vanilla ice cream. The cafe is on an unassuming deck, open to the river bank and they only sell the one dessert. It’s the best you will ever eat, crumbly on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside, crust to filling, proportioned to perfection.
On a road trip, food is very important. You associate places to the food you eat if they are memorable, but we were also crossing paths with the sun, as it rises in the east and travels west. So next morning, we saw the sun rise over the Ganges and let me tell you that it is as stunning here as it is in the mountains of Uttarakhand. After sunrise and breakfast, we drove out of UP into Bihar, only to encounter motorists on the wrong side of the road, and so many villages on the highway that our average speeds dropped considerably. It’s at times like these when a long road trip can get monotonous, but the Tucson kept us entertained. It has a good music system and the infotainment screen is easy to use. By now, we had crossed over 2000km since McLeodganj and after three days of driving, there was no fatigue yet. It is pleasantly surprising how the Tucson tirelessly eats and belches highways all day. It has been a while since I’ve experienced an SUV made in India that’s so easy-going and so well-built. Empty stretches are gobbled easily with 183bhp and 400Nm giving the Tucson some serious pace when you need it. When you’ve got to shoot all day, catch a sunrise in one city and get to another that’s over 700km away, to catch the sunset, that speed is essential. You don’t have to break speed limits though. A quick accelerating SUV like the Tucson ensures that time lost in slow-moving traffic can be made up when the highways open.
We turned off AH1 before Dhanbad and crossed state borders from Jharkhand to West Bengal for a short time before crossing back in to Jharkhand just minutes away from Jamshedpur, the steel city of India. It was only supposed to be a stopover point but just before Jamshedpur, we caught the sunset at Dimna lake, a beautiful water body that came out of nowhere. The drive to Jamshedpur and out of it showcases Indian countryside at its finest. Lush forests, smooth and winding roads, no traffic, the occasional cow crossing the road to keep you alert and with a comfortable cabin, it’s just the right road trip mix. A majority of it is a rural drive, but soon after you get on the AH45, you near Puri at quick pace.
Puri is on the eastern coast, and has Odisha’s most scenic beaches. A coastal road connects the dots between Puri to Konark, the place where you will find the sun temple. Ironically, we ran out of light while chasing the sun, so the sun temple welcomed us in the dark, but the road that leads to it, is driving paradise. No drive is more peaceful and pleasurable as one along the sea. The sea breeze, a smooth tarmac road and a sandy beach has a calming effect. If you love your evening drives, drive on a coastal road. The Puri to Konark road is one of the best driving roads in the country.
We missed the sun set and rise in Puri because the clouds decided to rob us of it. The next day we were on the long drive back to Pune, about 1700km away from Puri. On to the AH45, we soldiered on, the highway going almost all the way to Vijaywada. This stretch of the Asian highway is the best I’ve driven on because the east to south corridor is still not as industrially strong as the rest of the country so very few commercial vehicles ply on this route. We had crossed over 3000km since McLeodganj yet there were no signs of fatigue. The Tucson is built for highways like these, and whether you develop an easy driving style or gun for a speedy arrival to your next destination, it’s comfortable doing both. Despite having a strong diesel engine, at relaxed cruising speeds, the Tucson was returning about 17kmpl and never did it drop under 12kmpl. By lunch we had shown our backs to Vizag and just after sunset, we checked in to a hotel in Vijaywada.
Home is where my parking lot is. The morning in Vijaywada started with talks of home. The plan was to get there as fast as we could, but Google maps hinted at a 15-hour drive to cover the 860km distance. Turns out NH65 was empty and once we reached Hyderabad, the ring road spat us on the other side of town bypassing all the city traffic. We were well on our way home even before the sun found its warmth and by early evening, the Tucson rolled in to my parking. Sure this was a marathon drive, but it was one with sights of stunning landscapes, a vastness of this nation that makes a long road trip worthwhile and a showcase of road infrastructure we have developed in the recent past. The flat lands are developing quickly with wonderful roads and expansive fields, beaches on the east look more virgin than they are and the Tucson gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sights in the kind of comfort that more expensive German marques offer. Getting home after all is nice, but the long drive will be missed.