Escapism. It’s a feeling, a state of mind that we auto journos relate to, just how humans relate to breathing. The open roads, the experience behind the wheel, the joy of steering a machine through varied landscapes and terrains, experiencing Nature’s best as we proceed. The lockdown might have kept us away from the roads for most bits of 2020 and the vaccine might still some time away, but I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive down one of India’s most loved premium hatchback from Delhi to Mumbai.
For this year’s edition of the Great India Drive, we were handed out the all-new Hyundai i20 with some very basic instructions – relive the open roads, experience what I hadn’t for the past nine months and allow myself to fall in love with the vivid traditions India has to offer. I had the liberty to map a route the way I wanted, so I sat down with the team to discuss the possibilities. Paramount importance was given to the current COVID-19 situations in various states and travel restrictions between borders, along with the farmers’ protest that was taken to the roads and had consequently blocked some major highways. With some extensive planning, I was able to carve down a route through the Great Indian Desert, the open vast stretches of the Thar Desert which is the world’s 17th largest desert and also the ninth largest hot tropical desert.
Why the Thar, you ask? With winters kicking in, a lot of tourists are headed to the mountains to experience the snow. While that would have been bliss, it’s also close to the many tourists that are travelling, with lesser social distancing amongst them. Also, winters are the perfect time to experience the desert – with temperatures dropping to as low as four degrees in the night, the chills through the spine were painful.
Having packed the boot of the i20 with our bags, we headed to Bikaner for our first night’s stay. Situated around 448km away from the national capital, the route was a mixture of state highways and national highways, a perfect blend to get accustomed to the car. While space was plenty to accommodate our luggage, I would have appreciated a bit more ground clearance. But I also knew some great roads awaited us so I didn’t complain much. Winter skies in Delhi are known for the excessive haze due to pollution but what kept the cabin nice and fresh was the in-built air purifier. The variant we were driving was the turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit mated to a seven-speed DCT transmission. It’s the newest addition to the line of powertrains to be offered with the i20 and I was eager to answer just one question, does one litre suffice on the highways?
It didn’t take me long to answer that. Since the first day was all about covering the distance, my right foot didn’t shy away from the accelerator and the responses from the engine were generous. We were quick to cover the distance and we tuned in to our favourite tracks while the i20 went on to munch some miles. More than that, it was the sense of uniting with the roads that made me happier. As we crossed the borders, the feeling sank deeper.
Triple-digit speeds, multiple tolls and a few pee spots later (it sure was cold) we entered the city of Bikaner. It was barely past four but the skies were darker than expected, and we resorted to Google Maps to guide us to the hotel. Having carried only our essentials to the hotel, we left the i20 to take some rest while Aakash and I went on a food spree, hunting down the most ‘local’ cuisine we could. A few windows later we found a comforting restaurant that served us Ker Sangri and Rajasthan Kadhi Pakoda, both of which were adequately satisfying and relishing.
The next morning introduced us to the beautifully laid out tarmac of Rajasthan as we headed to Jaisalmer, our home for the next two days. The ride was quick, the roads were engaging, and the surroundings were – well let’s just say I was able to see open stretches of land on both sides and the view wasn’t blocked by vertical blocks of cement. The city serves as the junction to many driving destinations and as we were closing the distance, the reason became evident. Arrow straight stretches, expanding into the horizon. If you own a fast car, get it here. For you, for the car, for the drive. Trust me, you’ll kiss the road and call me later.
As we entered the city, we were greeted by many locals who chased us down on their bikes to see if we were interested in staying at their properties. Scary at first, but we could have imagined the tourism industry taking a hit due to the virus. Yet, they were nice and welcoming and even guided us about the tourist spots we shouldn’t miss. Having made a quick note of their recommendations, we headed to our boutique hotel to settle in for the night.
And what an enchanting place that way, the interior decor was enlivened by the vivid colours of local handicrafts, the walls were made of yellow stones and the flooring had marble with such intricate detailed work done to it. Pleased with the hospitality, we headed to the roof-top restaurant to try their Rajasthani Laal Maans with Bajra roti. The preparation does include yoghurt but it was so filled with Mathania chillies, we had a sweaty dinner even when it was cold outside. Talk about Indian spices you guys!
The next morning was more of relief with us soaking in the first rays of the sun at the Gadisar Lake located within the city. This manmade lake has its roots dated back to 1367 AD and offers a serene lookout to catch up with your long-lost trails of thoughts.
Accompanying you would be the bevvy of swans who’d want you to feed them as well. After a few good hours of this dreamy morning, we headed to the Jaisalmer Fort, which is one of the few living forts in existence around the world. For the better part of its 800-year old history, it’s been ‘the city’ of Jaisalmer. A quick hike introduced us to the famous handicraft market where the vendors made sure we didn’t leave empty-handed. In fact, at the end of it, we were so full of artefacts that we had to hop into an auto-rickshaw to get us to the parking, where the i20 was parked.
The day ended with us finding ourselves on a rooftop restaurant that overlooks the Jaisalmer fort. As we were discussing its heritage, the night lights came on and it stood there in all its glory, especially with the December sky in Jaisalmer turning all shades of pink before the dark kicks in. Tourists have started to flock in for the Christmas festivities but there was social distancing maintained at all times, hence things weren’t much of a worry. If anything, the i20 picked up most conversations with people wanting to pose next to it, check out its interiors, inquire about ‘Kitna deti hai’ and most of all, the sunroof was the start of its highlight. Shows how well Hyundai knows its customers.
The second day in Jaisalmer has us on our toes throughout, yet it was the highlight of the trip. We began at 0600hrs to head to the Akal Wood Fossil Park, a National Geological Monument of India that houses fossils of wood from the early Jurassic period. The petrified wood is indicative of lush forests in a tropical warm and humid climate thriving 180 million years ago, including the possibility of this being a sea bed once upon a time. Just the thought of the possibility made me wonder how the surface of the Earth has changed over the years.
We also found some new friends – a playful dog, an emu and a fawn that came along to play with us. They were curious to see our shooting equipment and even came close to the i20, allowing us to take some great shots with the car. We wanted to stay longer but had to head to the next destination – the haunted village of Kuldhara. It’s a short drive from the fossil park that passes through the Jaisalmer Wind Park, India’s second-largest and the world’s fourth-largest onshore wind farm. We stopped underneath a turbine for a quick snap before heading down to the heritage site.
Kuldhara has earned its reputation as a haunted site but multiple stories suggest other possibilities of the remains. What you see are ruins of 410 buildings that were deserted by the 19th century. Walk past the collapsed roofs, fallen joists and pillars and you’ll find yourself amongst houses that were once occupied. I also happened to climb up the roof of a few ruins to allow myself a better view of the surroundings, from where I could spot many ruins, a temple and a group of bikers on ADVs who themselves were louder than their bikes.
Having quickly wrapped the shoot, we hopped in the i20 to quickly have our packed breakfast and set off to Longewala, the border town that’s famous for the battle that was fought in December 1971. Bonus is the roads leading to the outpost – beautiful winding sections through the barren lands stretching till your eyes could see, under the out worldly skies. It’s a great road to let yourself connect with your machine, as I did with the when I was reflecting on its strengths.
The 1.0-litre engine packs adequate performance for the roads, the suspension can match those on C-SUVs (it lacks the ground clearance though) and there are plenty of features to keep you and the occupants entertained through the drive. What’s a massive improvement over the outgoing version is the space on offer, and that makes it an appealing package especially if the majority of your commute is within the city. The seven-speed DCT kept working its magic in the background as we chased the 120km distance with eagerness.
The town of Longewala – we’ve all seen the movie Border which depicts this historic battle, and the sentiments get stronger as your walk on the battlefield. Flashbacks from the movie ran back and I began imagining the night of the 4th December 1971, as the skies must have worn the colour of fire and the sound of exploding artillery sending shockwaves all around. What remains here are the names of the brave hearts, the M40 A1 recoilless rifles mounted on Mahindra Jeeps and the destroyed T-59 Pakistani tanks, almost recreating the mechanised infantry forces that were present on the night. The audio-visual centre and the border café were shut for the season but I’m sure there’s more to learn from the experience that has been curated in there.
For our way back, we decided to drive down the route that passes through the famous dunes of Sam, introducing me to the newly laid tarmac under the Bharatmala Pariyojana – some of the best roads currently in India. Soft tarmac, arrow-straight stretches, banked turns and no speed breakers. Exactly what an automotive dream is made of. We were quick to reach Sam, where we got the chance to ride on the desert ship, allowing us to climb on top of dunes and see them spread across for stretches. Just as we were relishing the view, the sun sank leaving behind its mystical magic over our last day in Jaisalmer.
That’s right, the spectral trip to Rajasthan came to an end and the feeling wasn’t the most tender. The next day was a task on the i20, driving straight to Mumbai, covering a distance of 1,200 km in a projected 18 hours. I planned the route while munching on dal baati churma, while Aakash went on to sort his photographs. We loaded the car the night before, tanked it up to the brim and slept imagining the usual grind that we are going to encounter in a day.
I missed being out on the roads and I’m glad I could fulfil my desire with this little trip to Rajasthan. This is, officially, the state with the best roads and that’s good enough reason to keep coming back here. As for the i20, it’s been a wonderful companion, hungry for more miles as we raced against the time to reach Mumbai. 2,689 kilometres in total, that sure was one heck of a drive!