Volkswagen Taigun on the border roads | Border Patrol
We’re starting in the middle of nowhere. Or so I thought. The Tanot Mata temple is deep inside Rajasthan, a mere 20km from the Indo-Pak border. I expected it to be desolate. After all, the closest large-ish town was Jaisalmer some 150km away and we were here before dawn broke. But no, it was packed! Busloads of devotees were at the temple, many having stayed in the premises overnight to offer their prayers at first light. I underestimated the devotion the people of this country have to the Gods. And I seriously underestimated the draw of the Tanot Mata temple.
The Tanot Mata temple has a storied history that dates back to the 1965 war with Pakistan. Legend has it that when Pakistan was shelling this region, this temple and its premises were left unscathed, while plenty else was destroyed around it. This was because all the shells that landed near the temple simply didn’t detonate. That’s where the stories of the powers that this temple began, and that draw remains to this today. Today, you can see these unexploded shells in a museum inside the temple. The Border Security Force, BSF in short, has also built a victory pillar inside the temple premises and has taken charge of the upkeep of this temple.
It only made sense then, for us to start this Border Patrol Drive with the Volkswagen Taigun from the Tanot mata temple with BSF assistant commandant Surinder Kumar flagging us off. The very people who protect and patrol our borders have an outpost at this temple and hoist the Indian flag here every morning — an appropriate setting to begin this road trip that would see us drive down the western border of India. We were heading south from Tanot, driving the length of Rajasthan and ending in Gujarat — an epic drive to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Aazadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. And we were out to set a record while we were at it — the Longest drive on India’s Western border, discovering the Bharatmala and then the Border Fence road — validated and certified by the guys from the India Book of Records.
The Bharatmala road? You’ve probably heard of it if you read this magazine regularly. We have done a few stories, but none of this scale. Before I tell you more about the road though, I need to introduce the cars. Volkswagen Taiguns. Four of them. Every drivetrain option on sale today. We’ve got the 1.0 TSI with the manual and automatic, and we’ve got the 1.5 TSI with the manual and DSG. These are German cars that have been made in India, for India! Which is why we picked them — this drive would be a proper test of their endurance. This region, the Thar desert, has some of the harshest climate in the country. Temps that soar over 50 degrees, arid air, tarmac that will melt the soles of your shoes. The Taiguns need to be able to deal with these conditions while driving constantly for 12 to 13 hours straight while keeping us cool.
But it was raining. In the desert. Who would have thought? Rain wasn’t going to stop us though. Indian flag hoisted, cars flagged off in the presence of the BSF, and we aimed the Taiguns south. The sun was still only inches above the horizon when we passed our first sand dunes — they line the side of the road in these parts and you feel like Moses parting them as you drive past. Google Maps projected via wireless Android Auto and CarPlay are always great to have but are of no use here. Forget the fact that there was no internet, these roads don’t even show up as regular routes on Google Maps! We went old-school — we enlisted the help of a physical map and our friend Madan Choudhary of Rajasthan Motorsports to point us in the right direction. And the right direction to start with, was Longewala some 51km away.
Longewala was a crucial point in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Pakistani tanks with over 2000 troops were approaching in the night, and a small regiment of 120 Indian soldiers were given the choice of retreating or defending their position, as areal reinforcements would not be available till dawn. They chose to defend and used a 4x4-mounted rifles to attack the approaching tanks. 12 tanks were destroyed by the armed forces stationed here, and they held off the Pakistani forces till Indian aircraft arrived in the morning and claimed another 10 tanks. Longewala was defended successfully. Today, Longewala has a beautiful museum that showcases how the battle panned out along with a poignant memorial dedicated to the fallen.
You cannot miss Longewala. After all, there are tanks right on the road. Captured Pakistani Sherman tanks act as armoured islands in the middle of the road, with the museum on one side and the memorial on the other. We stopped to pay our respects. The machines on display fascinated the mechanical nerds that we are — tanks, 4x4s with guns mounted on them, the HAL Krishak aircrafts and Maruts that laid waste to the enemy tanks. Walking through the memorial was a sombre experience though — the stories of the men who sacrificed their lives for our country are gut-wrenching. This place is a a reminder of the violence we humans are capable of. But it is also a reminder of bravery, of courage, of resilience and of sacrifice. A few brave men chose to fight a force much larger than them. And though sheer grit, determination and a bit of good planning, saw it through. Their sacrifices allow us to live the lives we do today. Drive the cars we do today. We must never forget. But we must also move forward. Next up? 280km on the Bharatmala road.
The Bharatmala project is funded by the central government that aims to provide connectivity across the country, with a special emphasis on connecting rural and far flung locations, and even border locations. Over 80,000km of highways will come under this project, with an investment of Rs 10.63 lakh crore. The idea is to boost economic activity in these hard to reach places, and also providing security forces corridors to travel along on the border itself.
Which explains why we have this pristine stretch of tarmac in the back of beyond. It really is a sight to behold — perfectly marked, immaculately paved, empty — seeing this road snaking its way to the horizon sets alight the fires in the bellies of us enthusiasts. And it isn’t just an arrow straight American snooze fest; it dips and rises, scythes left and right through the countryside. It makes you want to drive your cars hard, and our Taiguns, they more than oblige.
When it was launched, we said that the Taigun is the class benchmark when it comes to ride and handling. One year on, it remains unchallenged on this front. The first thing that stands out on a road like this is its stability. We’re sitting at triple digit speeds constantly here and Volkswagen’s experience of building cars for the Autobahns shines through. It feels planted, confident and determined to hold those speeds without spooking the driver. And then when the corners come at you, the chassis lends itself generously to having fun. The car communicates its limits with finesse, and you quickly find out that those limits are fairly high. You can carry good speeds though bends, with the Taigun remaining confident throughout.
It isn’t just the chassis that deserves a mention though — the engines are real masterpieces as well. Both the 1.0 TSI and the 1.5 TSI offer you a great blend of performance and efficiency. The 1.0 TSI is the one to have if you’re on a budget, but by no means is it a compromise. It is an award-winning engine, after all. You’ve got impressive levels of performance, the TSI engine likes to rev out nicely, and it sounds great. That three cylinder motor? Love it! But if you’re looking for even more performance, there’s the 1.5 TSI. It gets one more cylinder, a larger cubic capacity and it’s way more fun. With 148bhp and 250Nm, this gets the Taigun moving rapidly and complements the chassis beautifully. The best part? if you’re someone who likes involvement, you can have it with a manual. Or you can get the twin-clutch DSG, which is a proper hoot!
The Bharatmala seems endless and you can get carried away by it, but don’t. Around Myajilar, 230km from the start, that wide road simply stops. Bang. Gone. Without warning. All you’re left with is a narrow, single-track road that is barely paved. This is the road through the Desert National Park.
The desert national park may seem like an oxymoron — isn’t the desert supposed to be devoid of wildlife? Fact is, it isn’t. This protected land in the middle of the Thar desert is home to birds like eagles, falcons, buzzards, and vultures. It also has foxes, chinkaras, wild cats, lizards, vipers, kraits and a number of other reptiles and insects. It covers over 3000 square km, making it one of the largest parks in the country, and 44 per cent of this is just sand dunes.
Thank heavens for ground clearance. This was not something we had accounted for — we had assumed the Bharatmala road would continue all the way down south to Gujarat, and this came as a rude surprise. The Taiguns didn’t seem fazed though. They just soldiered down the trail. All in a day’s work. With the market going crazy over SUVs, it only made business sense that the first car out of the India 2.0 program for VW was an SUV. And the numbers speak for themselves.
That tag of an SUV isn’t all show and no go. This may not have been a proper 4x4 trail but it was far from easy either — sand had billowed across the road leaving trails where tarmac should have been. Some careful driving ensured we didn’t get stuck, and the Taigun took the broken patches that separated the sandy ones in its stride. This is why SUVs are so important for road tripping in India — you never know what lies ahead and it’s always better to stay prepared. A sedan wouldn’t have survived this trail. And as if to mimic the harshness of the trail, the sun had starting beating down on us now. We rolled up our windows and stayed comfortable in the lovely air-conditioned cabin of the Taiguns. Outside temperatures crossed 40 degrees but inside we didn’t realise, what with the air-con working beautifully.
The poor, narrow, bumpy and unexpectedly treacherous road continued for 36km and that’s when we hit tarmac again. Phew. We could pick up the pace again. We passed the town of Munabao, bang on the border with Pakistan, drove parallel to the international railway line that the Thar Express used to run on, and continued onwards till a town called Bakhasar.
There’s a road that runs along the border with Pakistan. It hugs a barbed-wire fence that separates the two countries, beginning right where the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat meet, and running deep in to Kutch, almost to the coast. The fence sits precisely 150 meters from the actual border, an agreement between the two countries not to build any closer determined this, and you can see the international border marked out with white stones laid down by the survey authorities of both countries. The road itself was built back in 2002, reclaimed from the Rann, and is a patrol road for the BSF. With outposts and regular intervals and floodlights, this road is critical for the BSF to monitor the border and move quickly along it. And did we mention that no civilians have been here before.
Until now. As a part of the record run, we secured permission to drive this road. Arun Sharma, deputy commandant of the BSF accompanied us from Bakhasar to the checkpost at the start of the road. Here we were given a strict brief — we could shoot pictures only in permitted spots, and at no point were we allowed to shoot footage of any defence structures. Right. This is where things get real serious.
At first, you’re just driving through 20 foot high foliage, and can see nothing but leaves and the taillights of the car in front of you. But then you enter a clearing and you spot it — a tall barbed wire fence running to the right as far as the eye can see. The road running along it is narrow, wide enough for just one car at a time. Everything on the left of the fence is India, and 150 metres to the right is Pakistan. The fence itself is fearsome. It has two rows of barbed wire separated by about 5 feet, and this gap has more barbed wire coiled in to it. This is effectively the border. The edge of the country.
We get the Taiguns on to the road and start driving along the fence. It’s a surreal experience. We could see Pakistani watchtowers on the other side, and we could see our own watchtowers and BSF stations every few kilometres. We saw the faces of hard men. The jawans of the BSF who live out here, in the middle of nowhere, guarding our borders. Some are sombre, most are thrilled to see us. We salute all of them as we drive past. I can’t imagine the lives they live. They’ve said goodbye to their parents, their partners, their children. They live here with zero connectivity to the outside world — there’s no mobile network, nothing. Just their duty. Full respect.
And these parts are very, very harsh. In the summers the waters recede and it is all the white Rann, salt billowing in the strong oven-hot winds, the salt reflecting the sun mercilessly. No wonder the jawans here sport a fearsome tan, and just a few hours had tanned all of us as if we were on a beach in Goa for the past month.
This border essentially cuts through the Rann of Kutch, and at this time of the year the Rann floods. For the most part, there was water on both sides of the road and thousands of flamingoes in the water. And seeing this with my very own eyes — seeing the homogeneity of the land, the landscape to the left and right, but with this massive fence running through it had a lasting impact on me. I couldn’t help but think about how borders are actually artificial constructs. It brought to mind John Lenon’s lyrics: ‘Imagine all the people, sharing all the world…’.
Much like the Tanot Mata temple, Nadabet temple is believed to have played a role in a battle in the 1971 war. The soldiers who took the blessings from the temple didn’t suffer any casualties and came back victorious. Since then, the BSF has a soldier deployed at the temple as a priest and that remains so to this day. Today, Nadabet has an army museum, artillery and even a MIG fighter jet on display — an attempt to draw people here and show them what goes in to protecting our borders.
By now, the sun had started to drop from its perch in the sky. We were not allowed to be on this road after dark so we had to pick up the pace. A message came through on the walkie: we had to reach Zero point, some 36km away, before dark. “Push,” came the call on the radio. We picked up the pace, four Taiguns threading this road that essentially draws our borders. What a sight it would have been from the outside!
Soon enough, we passed another checkpost. And that was it — we made it! 579km in from Tanot temple, the drive was flagged in at Zero Point near Nadabet and we had set a new record. Zero point is a specific point on this road, which has access to the Indian mainland via Nadabet. Civilians are allowed to come to Zero point, but no further along the road. The Indian flag flies high at Zero point and we arrived in time to watch the retreat ceremony. This was goosebumps inducing — the sun was dipping below the horizon, the flag was fluttering above the Taiguns we had driven here in, and we stood at attention in absolute silence watching the BSF bring down the flag for the day. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. What way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Indian independence!
Coinciding with India’s anniversary is the Taigun’s one-year anniversary, and what a year it has been for Volkswagen. Headline sales figures, exports, acceptance by the Indian market — all of it goes to show that the Taigun has been a roaring success. And after a drive like this, it is not hard to see why. It’s comfortable, quick, fun, reliable and goes well beyond being a city slicker and is a car that will allow you to truly explore this country. Even the furthest corners of it!