In the 6th edition of the Great India Drive, Hyundai decided to take us to Kashmir for a brand-new adventure. But, with snowfall happening just two days before our arrival, how did the Tucson fare in the extreme weather?
The Great India Drive remains one of my favourite drive concepts for many reasons. Over the years, the drive has accorded us opportunities to visit many different areas of the country – and even outside, as the first drive took us to Bhutan! In my five GID drives, I’ve traversed across diverse areas like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. However, this time, it was time for a completely new adventure with our focus being on Kashmir. But the situation changed dramatically just two days before we were supposed to land in Kashmir, with the region getting an early dose of snowfall. How did we fare in these extreme conditions? Well, let me tell you the story.
We landed in Srinagar on a cold, freezing morning. An early morning flight meant that I missed the traffic in Delhi, and landed on a cold, but clear day in Srinagar, heading straight to our hotel. The fact that it had snowed early in the season was repeated to us by multiple people with most advising that our destination for tomorrow – Kargil – would probably be out of bounds. You see, while the lower reaches of the areas between Srinagar and Kargil are accessible, the mighty Zojila pass was unlikely to be open. Meanwhile, as the sun set, the cold increased and I could already feel the chill on my bald head. A good thing then that I had stocked up on new thermals and a new cap to keep myself warm.
The next day started early, again the sky was clear and the exit from Srinagar was uneventful. In fact, the first couple of hours into the drive and we were constantly on very good roads, which the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) was clearly doing a good job with. But the extent of how much snow was there became clear to us as we reached our lunch stop at Sonmarg, it had easily snowed about 18 inches and the whole town was under a thick white cover. Till lunch, we weren’t sure if we would be allowed to cross the Zojila Pass, but late in the evening, just before the sun was about to set, we were given the go-ahead.
Rushing to our cars, we quickly hot-footed it (well, as quickly as you could on snow- and ice-covered roads) across the Zojila, crossing the summit of the pass just as the last rays of the sun faded away. Now, driving across the huge banks of snow was quite something, but to give credit where due, despite the temperature falling down to -11 degrees, the Tucson had no issue tackling the conditions as we crossed the frigid cold of Drass (second coldest inhabited place in the world) and retired for the night at Kargil.
Stuck at Zojila
Now, since we were the only vehicles allowed the day before across the Zojila, our journey had been very easy and traffic-free. We did notice lots of trucks parked before Kargil, but obviously with Zojila closed for three days, we didn’t anticipate what kind of traffic rush we would face when going back to Srinagar. But that would come later, as we first stopped at the Kargil War Memorial to pay our respects to our brave soldiers to who we owe so much. Despite having read about, and watched movies about it, physically seeing landmarks such as Tiger Hill right in front of you, and the brutal weather, bring about sobriety with regards to the challenges our forces faced, and how difficult it must’ve been to overcome them. If you are ever in the region, I would highly suggest a visit to the memorial, it truly makes you get a sense of how wicked the battle had been.
Coming back to the traffic, the backlog of trucks really started getting a sense of scale when we started climbing the Zojila again. Thankfully, the traffic was all one-way, and we were able to overtake the trucks, but in places, the road was very narrow, and the progress was difficult. What didn’t help either was that after a couple of days of sunshine, the snow had turned to ice, and many of the heavy vehicles were really struggling in maintaining traction. The Tucson though – with snow mode selected – was simply cruising by without a worry. The heated seats, the sight from the panoramic sunroof and the climate control meant we were cosy and warm inside the SUV.
'We first stopped at the Kargil War Memorial to pay our respects to our brave soldiers to who we owe so much'
Eventually, after nine-and-a-half hours, we finally made it back to Sonmarg, a journey we had completed in less than three hours the day before. And it was time to hit Srinagar before our second leg of the Great India Drive began.
Discovering New Areas
On virtually every trip that I undertake, there must be one or two hurdles that I have to cross, and having been through the mess at Zojila, I was under the impression that the hurdle for this trip was done. Oh, how wrong I was! The journey from Srinagar began after getting the Tucson thoroughly cleaned – the two days of driving through snow, ice and mud had done it no favours – at the impressive facility of HK Hyundai in Srinagar. I assumed the journey from here on would be better highways and good road conditions, but once I passed the Banihal tunnel, the road simply disappeared, and the traffic was heavy. Evidently, as the winter was about to fully set in, this was the time when the Kashmir valley starts stocking up on supplies, and heavy trucks made up most of the traffic. Thankfully though, once I turned off the main highway just before the Chainani tunnel, I discovered a beautiful driving road to my destination Bhaderwah, which was thankfully free of traffic too.
Bhaderwah is a sleepy little town in Doda district and home to a few very famous temples as well as tourist attractions. The next morning, I pointed the Tucson towards the Padri pass, which tourists flock to in the summers. But, as this was winter, the road was practically empty and once again very well maintained. Going up the pass was an absolute delight, as starting from a snow-free town, slowly we got to see more and more snow as we climbed altitude. In fact, pretty soon, the road was pretty much coated with snow, with the GREF division of BRO keeping a fine job keeping the road open for traffic. Once again, with the snow mode engaged, the Tucson had no problem tackling the icy conditions.
'Bhaderwah is a sleepy little town in Doda district and home to a few very famous temples as well as tourist attractions'
And like all Great India Drive editions, I once again got to discover something new on this trip. Sure, this was not my first time getting stuck at a mountain pass – I still have horrors of Rohtang to recount – but it was my first time driving in so much snow in India. And it was my first time discovering some of the hidden gems of Kashmir. Now all that remained between me, and home, was the two-day long drive between Bhaderwah to Delhi, and that proved to be eventual too. But that’s a story for another day, for this trip had been about how capable the Tucson is, and how it allowed me to travel to some rather extreme areas without any worries. As I always say, it was another GID adventure that I thoroughly loved.