Every story holds a hidden tale, and here’s how this one unfolds. Just before I packed my bags, I was bubbling with excitement. It marked my maiden voyage to Kashmir, India’s crown jewel. Having crisscrossed the vast landscapes of the country, I yearned to witness if Kashmir’s beauty truly lived up to its lofty reputation. But that wasn’t the sole source of my excitement; I was about to take the wheel of a Hyundai Exter for the very first time. Could it deliver on Hyundai’s promise of being easy for first-time drivers? So much lay ahead, waiting to be uncovered.
Without further ado, I can assure you both those claims held true beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, an action-packed weekend at MotoGP quickly overshadowed these realisations. But as I sit down to pen this article, memories of Kashmir’s paradise come flooding back.
Contrary to common belief, Kashmir is a tranquil haven, and to my astonishment, Srinagar is a modern city like any other. In fact, the airport there seems larger than Pune’s, and the roads rival those of Bengaluru. Looking down from the skies, the landscape resembled picturesque postcards wherever my gaze landed. I couldn’t help but envy the breathtaking views that pilots must enjoy from their cockpit.
As we touched down, the Hyundai Exter awaited us at the airport. I vividly recall a security guard mistaking it for a military vehicle due to its Ranger Khakhi color. The first latch revealed a trunk spacious enough to swallow all our luggage. So far, everything exceeded expectations.
Our destination wasn’t far from Srinagar - Dachigam National Park. As we left Srinagar behind, two things struck me. First, Srinagar boasted a plethora of exquisite wooden houses, adorned with sloping roofs designed to shed snow when winter arrives. Each house was a unique work of art, a soothing sight for the eyes. Second, as I drove through this breathtaking landscape, I quickly adapted to the dynamics of the Exter. Its elevated ride height provided excellent visibility in this unfamiliar terrain, while the Easy Shift automatic transmission allowed me to soak in the beauty around me. What impressed me even more was the dash camera’s inclusion - not only does it enhance safety, but also allows to capture beautiful memories while your hands are occupied with the steering wheel.
Then, a large blue circle appeared on the map displayed on the screen, adjacent to the road. I gleefully learned that the road to Dachigam ran alongside Dal Lake. I found a spot to park the Exter, captured a few images, and allowed myself 15 minutes of serenity. This wasn’t your typical luxury sea-view apartment; this was something else entirely.
The journey to Dachigam from Dal Lake grew even more picturesque. The uphill climb was made effortless by the Exter’s naturally aspirated engine, which, like me, relished the clean air as it revved higher. Due to its proximity to the city, we entered Dachigam National Park in no time. It was time to leave the car behind and immerse ourselves in nature.
Nature did not disappoint. Brown bears and leopards roamed freely, some occasionally venturing into human settlements, only to be later rescued. These animals found refuge in Dachigam’s rehabilitation center, where they received ample medical attention.
We had the privilege of meeting four leopards and even befriended a Brown Bear. Despite being in captivity, they appeared remarkably healthy and active, unlike many zoo animals. The sensation of being so close to these majestic creatures was incredible. I lost track of time as one of the chatty local guides regaled us with tales of their recent antics, leaving us in fits of laughter.
After our visit to the rehabilitation center, our next adventure was to explore the pristine beauty of Dachigam in search of more wildlife encounters. We were greeted by a plethora of bird species, filling the air with their melodious songs under the radiant weather and picturesque landscape. These feathered residents, however, proved to be quite camera-shy, taking flight at the mere sight of our photography equipment.
As we ascended to higher ground, our keen eyes spotted a few herds of deer. They had become masters of camouflage, blending seamlessly into their surroundings. It seemed they had learned the park’s visitor schedule, as we were informed they only ventured onto the trail when no humans were in sight. These clever creatures certainly had us beat. I would have loved to leave the trail and head off into the jungle but because we were in a national park housed in one of the most sensitive states in India, we were strongly advised not to. Maybe next time, I’ll be here at the crack of the dawn to have a higher chance of spotting wildlife.
Leaving such a remarkable setting was never easy, but as I retraced my steps toward the Exter, I realised that in a few months, the entire region would be blanketed in snow, transforming it into a winter wonderland. When that time comes, I hope to return, ideally in a Hyundai, because no one showcases the beauty of India quite like they do.
Photography: Harmanpreet Singh