What is it that makes the mountains so alluring? After a rather strenuous year, there’s nothing quite like a well-deserved break to search for some inner peace.
The thought of taking a break from work had been gnawing at the back of my mind for a few months. It’s been a pretty demanding year, and I badly needed some time off to recharge my batteries. In an age when we’re constantly connected, and when there’s no escape from work at any time of the day or night, I was growing increasingly restless to get away from it all. What I needed was a digital detox!
There were a few pertinent questions to be addressed though. Firstly, where would I go? And, secondly, what car would I be driving? Both questions were answered quickly enough. A close friend and fellow wanderer nomad, Vikram Singh, who knows Himachal Pradesh like the back of his hand suggested Palampur. I longed for some peace and quiet, and with winter nearing, the mountains would be the best place for some relaxation – rather than the beaches of Goa or the backwaters of Kerala. Not a very well known small town in Himachal, Palampur’s main claim to fame is that it’s the tea capital of north west India. A little bit of research showed that Palampur also offers a fantastic view of the Dhauladhar mountain range, since it’s situated in the foothills. And, as a bonus, the weather at this time of the year is perfect for a break – chilly, but not too cold.
The second question involved deeper thought. What car would I drive for the trip? It had to be something that would be comfortable for a long road trip – ultimately I ended up covering over 1,600 kilometres – and good ground clearance would definitely help. The answer turned out to be quite straightforward actually – the new Hyundai Santa Fe would fit the role perfectly. It has a powerful diesel engine, the automatic gearbox makes long journeys a breeze – so does the ground clearance – and the space is a bonus.
So, after the festival season was over, and the mega Anniversary issue of autoX had hit the stands, I pushed off to Palampur on a Friday morning. The plan was simple – hit the road as early as possible and exit Delhi while the traffic was still sparse. And, for once, I was up early in the morning. Having loaded the car with all the essentials – warm clothes, lots and lots of books to read, favourite snacks, and an iPod filled with music – I hit the road.
The route I intended to take had been especially recommended by Vikram, and it was a mixture of regular highways and back roads – which would ensure that I would avoid as much of the crazy NH1 traffic as I could. So, before I hit Chandigarh, I took a right turn to head towards Kharar, from there I headed towards Nangal, and then towards Kangra. From Kangra, Palampur is just 40 kilometres away, with the total driving distance being around the 550 kilometre mark. Road conditions were absolutely fantastic throughout the route, and other than a few urban centres, where the traffic slowed me down a little bit, the driving conditions were pretty much as good as it gets on our roads.
The varied road types – more or less straight in the plains and then increasingly circumbendibus as the climb started – also gave me a chance to explore the dynamics of the Santa Fe further. As we said in our mega test in the last issue, the Santa Fe is a fantastic product, the dynamic capabilities of which will catch you by surprise!
The SUV’s suspension is very well tuned, delivering excellent ride comfort, while the handling is completely neutral. The biggest impression, though, is made by the 2.2-litre CRDi engine, which has excellent refinement and delivers a mean punch courtesy of its 194bhp and 436Nm of torque. What made the drive even more enjoyable was the 6-speed automatic gearbox, which meant that I didn’t have to worry about changing gears – as the transmission does a fine job. And, of course, as one would expect from Hyundai, the Santa Fe is loaded to the brim with features, and the sound system made the journey a breeze.
So, after about eight hours of driving on that Friday, I found myself sitting in Palampur in the afternoon – far from the hustle and bustle of cities, and far from anyone’s reach. To add to this strange, but quite pleasing, isolation was the hotel that I was staying at. Aptly named Hotel Seclude, this small but beautiful property is located a few kilometres outside Palampur town and literally stands in the middle of nowhere.
Most of my time was spent either doing nothing at all, and revelling in that for once, or losing myself in books that had been gathering dust for far too long. And when the surroundings got a little monotonous, I stepped out for a walk – or better yet, a drive!
I decided to see the local attractions. So, the first stop was the famous artist Sardar Sobha Singh’s art gallery in a little village, interestingly called Andretta. The next day I headed to Bir-Billing, which, as some of you might know, is a popular place for paragliding. I had never done paragliding before, and thought this would be a good time to try.
The road from Palampur to Bir goes through the holy town of Baijnath, and is a driver’s delight. It features wide roads with fantastic curves, excellent road conditions, and curvy, winding stretches that any keen driver would appreciate. So, after an hour-and-a-half of driving, I found myself strapped into a harness with a paraglider – with the ‘pilot’ egging me on to leap off a cliff with an 8,000-foot drop below. I forced myself to overcome my initial fear, took a big gulp, and ran as hard as I could – and, voila, a few seconds later, we were in the air slowly gaining altitude. And, once comfortable with the feeling of hovering in the air, I started enjoying the views from high above – which included various Buddhist monasteries below in the village of Bir. Honestly, it was an incredible experience – one that I would highly recommend you try at least once.
On my way back, I stopped by at Taragarh Palace, now a heritage hotel, which was originally built as a summer palace. The property belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Jammu and Kashmir. Like Palampur, the palace is also situated in the Dhauladhar foothills, and offers an outstanding view of the peaks. I enjoyed a lovely lunch there, basking in the warm afternoon sun. And it was there that I realised that the purpose of this trip had gone from simply taking some time off into exploring areas that I had never visited before. And this newly formed addiction was growing, because the next day I found myself in McLeod Ganj – having lunch with a friend. And, while there, I had the pleasure of attending the Dharamshala International Film Festival.
And these bursts through the mountains happened virtually every day, which did take some time away from my reading and relaxation – but it made me realise a few things. Primarily, the fact that our curiosity for discovery may have been subdued by the rigours of everyday life, but it craves to be let out. Travelling in peace, away from the madness of daily life rekindles that curiosity. And, of course, the absence of the constant phone calls and e-mails calms the mind immensely. In fact, my suggestion would be to take such breaks regularly to keep your sanity intact.
The lasting lesson of the drive was simple though – I still love travelling, especially driving holidays that take me to interesting places. Palampur is one such place. But if you’re looking to go shopping, or partying, or sightseeing in the traditional sense, then you’ll be disappointed. If you’re simply looking for some peace, solace and relaxation in a laidback environment, I couldn’t recommend any other destination. And, of course, if you have a car like the Santa Fe at your disposal, it makes the journey all the more special.