Mystical Journey

Benjamin Gracias
Heading to the land of enchantment on the 12th Honda Drive to Discover

Besides making notably reliable cars, Honda also does other interesting things like taking us media folk on celebratory drives. It’s called the Drive to Discover and over the past eleven years, has taken us journalists to explore the most exotic regions of India. For its 12th edition, sights were trained on Sikkim. Interestingly, over my decade-old journalistic journey, I have travelled all over India and the world but somehow the land of enchantment has slipped under my radar. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this journey. More importantly, I was looking forward to driving Honda’s new SUV — the Elevate.

The adventure started from the moment we landed at Bagdogra airport in West Bengal. A quick lunch later, we started driving towards Gangtok, our stop for the day. Journalists were clubbed into twos and threes and allotted a choice of wheels between the Elevate, City and Amaze. As luck would have it, we were allotted the Amaze, the Elevate would have to wait. I was not complaining though, as one thing I have learned from driving all over India is having a compact footprint is always favourable for driving in the hills. Driving the compact sedan in the hills was not just easy, it was quite fun. The Amaze excels in inspiring confidence and I admit going faster in corners much to the chagrin of my co-passenger who said nothing but was clutching the door handle hard. I think he sensed me enjoying the drive and wanted in so we swapped seats. That too just in time, as after a few kilometres we ran into a huge traffic jam at the border of Sikkim and West Bengal, the result of a narrow arterial road, fragile mountainside and heavy traffic. I settled down in the comfortable seat as my co-passenger deftly navigated the chaos and soon we stopped for tea in the dead of the night. Except that it wasn’t. Up here in the mountains, the sun sets early and what seemed like 10pm showed 5pm on my wristwatch.

After we demolished several plates of momos (the best I have had so far), we were back on the road. The Amaze delivers a cushy ride and turns out to be quite comfortable even with less-than-ideal road conditions.

The goal for day two was to reach Nathu La top, a formidable pass that’s known for its high elevation, unpredictable weather and treacherous road conditions should snowfall happen. We also had the challenge of reaching there before 1pm, before the pass shuts down. This time we had the Honda Elevate and an additional journalist for company. It wasn’t a hassle though as the Elevate easily swallowed our luggage and offered enough room for us to sit back and relax. Soon we left civilisation and drove along the snaking NH 310 as it made its way up the mountains. As we climbed higher, the lush greenery and trees-lined views were replaced by a snow-covered barren landscape covered by a thick blanket of fog. As we climbed towards 14,000 feet, the air began to get frigid and thinner. While most cars struggle to climb because of the reduced oxygen, the Elevate did not display any such symptoms and had enough power reserves to tackle the steepest inclines. Nathu La needs to be on your Sikkim bucket list not just for the beautiful vistas but also for the fact that it’s one of the rare places where you are mere feet away from the China border. We didn’t spend a lot of time owing to the ever-looming threat of altitude sickness and headed back down to enjoy the calmness of the Tsong Mo lake which is one of the highest lakes in India.

Day three saw a leisurely start as our destination for that day was Pelling, that’s known for offering a breathtaking view of the mighty Kanchenjunga, the highest mountain peak in India. This time we hopped into the Honda City Hybrid, another first for me. While the City impressed with its space and quality, the hybrid powertrain impressed with its refinement and seamless transition between the petrol and electric motors. It felt effortless navigating the narrow hilly road out of Gangtok and a detour that took us through the heart of a bazaar. The City felt at home in the hills save for a couple of times when its underbody scraped navigating through broken roads. A missed turn had us reach the destination later than expected and as luck would have it, a cloudy sky hid the mighty Kanchenjunga from view. Maybe we would have better luck the next morning. The silver lining though is the City Hybrid’s phenomenal fuel efficiency wherein the fuel gauge needle barely moved after covering more than a hundred kilometres in the hills.

The next day, the fog hadn’t abated as we made our way to the Pelling Glass skywalk. The Kanchenjunga remained elusive though the climb up to the viewing spot is rejuvenating. Our next stop was Darjeeling. Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, Darjeeling is the erstwhile retreat of British officers of colonial India and is world famous for its tea. While tea sampling was on the agenda, getting there was as fulfilling as it was adventurous. The road to Darjeeling is narrow, steep and winding through tea estates, while broken in places. It’s a challenging drive and I was glad to be back in the Elevate. The commanding driving position let me see above the overgrown tea hedges while the supple suspension soaked up even the worst of ruts. The light controls ensured a stress-free drive and soon we reached our destination — Ging Tea House to sample some world-famous Darjeeling tea. As expected, it is as refreshing as driving the Elevate. Soon we headed to Kalimpong, through the Darjeeling main road, whose traffic can easily compete as one of the worst in the world. Thankfully I was relaxing in the spacious and comfortable rear seat. I even managed to catch a glimpse of the famous toy train, the miniature train that runs on a narrow gauge and has been awarded world heritage status by UNESCO. It was a treat to see the train snaking its way through the chaos, hooting its whistle.

The next day we headed back, after an eventful four days on the road. The 12th edition of Honda Drive to Discover had delivered on its name. It took us on a journey to discover what’s a hidden jewel in India. More importantly, the drive served as a fantastic testbed for Honda’s India lineup. While the Elevate delivered as expected, I was more impressed by the City and Amaze. Both sedans were put to the test and came out with flying colours and both the vehicles and the enchanting land of Sikkim have left a lasting impression.

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