Were us spoiled city folk going to be able to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of Punjab? Would the mighty Himalayas be all they are said to be? Is driving in these parts different to what we're used to down south? Those were some of the questions floating around inside my head, as I walked out of the Sree Guru Ramdas Jee International Airport to the cab that was to ferry us to the hotel, for our briefing and flag off.
Nissan was celebrating the first anniversary of the Terrano with a drive called the Son of the Soil experience. Our itinerary described a route of 300 kilometres, beginning in spiritual Amritsar, Punjab, through to the India-Pakistan-border-neighbouring town of Gurdaspur, and finally climbing up to Palampur in the Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh.
The story continues on the next slide.
A sandwich, a quick puff, and the hour had arrived to make tracks towards the Himalayan foothills. This was my first time this far north, and the anticipation of finally getting to glimpse the largest mountain range in the world was hard to contain. The conditions couldn't have better too, and Punjab in the winter sun was going to be plenty fun, such dictated the upbeat mood of all the invited hacks.
We're a truly privileged lot, I thought, as we got into our assigned Terranos. Our was a Bronze Grey 90 PS diesel example, and yours truly had the honour of piloting the lead car of the convoy out of Amritsar. Good thing I didn't stall. The Radisson Blu hotel disappeared out of the rear view mirror, and we began our sojourn from the Golden Temple city towards the Punjabiyat resort in Gurdaspur.
As the kilometres began to tick over on the narrow stretch of highway tarmac, we marvelled at how green Punjab was, with acres and acres of lush green expanses of paddy fields, sugarcane plantations, and other crops on either side of the road.
People seem to be very calm in Punjab, or at least in the parts we drove through. It was still India, by all means, with motorists appearing suddenly out of nowhere on occasion, but the aggressive driving manners of city motorists was somehow thankfully absent. Two-wheelers, cars, pedestrians and combine harvesters alike seemed to find motoring harmony, and the asphalt was shared amicably by all.
While our out-of-state-registered Terrano didn't provoke angry honking from other road users, it did arouse the curiosity of a passing policeman in a Maruti Alto police car when we stopped for a few shots. Of er, digital imagery, that is. We tried explaining to him our journalist credentials, but our accented Hindi and strange inclination towards capturing pictures of an automobile on the side of the road must have seemed out of the ordinary.
However, the driver of our support car turned out to be from the area and we knew we were out of ‘trouble', when a brief explanation provided of our background was followed by some back slapping and friendly, sing-song chatter in Punjabi between them. All in the middle of the road, mind you. But we were soon on our way again and thought it would be nice to see a Gurudwara up close, and were directed into the property of a beautiful Sikh worship house near Batala. There were some curious onlookers here too, obviously, seeing our trigger-happy fingers, and my ahem, scholarly Hindi seemed amusing to one in particular. We were on holy ground after all, so I tried to humbly explain our intentions as best I could. He eventually settled for my lekhak credentials however, after a couple of minutes of my polite nodding and smiling while he shot line after Punjabi line at me.
We soon turned off the highway on to a side road that would lead us to Punjabiyat, a farmland resort with rather luxurious mud house accommodation and expanses of fields of sugarcane and wheat, that was to be the location for a late lunch.
The stunning locale proved to be a lovely backdrop to our lip-smacking food, which included a huge spread of delicious makki di roti, naan, pyaas aur muli, sarso da saag, dal makhani, and chicken curry. The sweet lassi accompaniment perfectly complemented the traditional flavours of the outdoor meal on the charpai, and I was touched by the warmth of the caring staff who served us our food.
Traditional Punjab met the talented Terrano here, and we tried to make use of the chance of a unique photo op with the protagonist vehicle alongside a tractor and a bull-drawn tonga. One of our journo friends even decided to take them all on in an official Son of the Soil drag race. Daresay his generous proportions saw me putting my money on the 90 horses of the Nissan though. What say, Venkat?
Full stomachs always spawn renewed energy and good moods, and this was the case as we continued on towards where I think all of us were secretly itching to go from the start of our excursion, to the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Much to the indignation of the hired help to keep the cars clean, no doubt, a little dust-kicking seemed in order before our exit out of Punjabiyat.
Must take this opportunity to compliment our transport here. The Terrano's stocky and compact proportions suited the narrow back highways of Punjab perfectly, and we were cocooned in the comfort of the air conditioning and the brilliant ride which handled with aplomb the warm weather and bad sections of road respectively. This was the 90 PS, lower-specced XL variant, but with a little working of the gearbox, it was possible to achieve reasonable performance.
We touched a section of four-lane expressway on NH 20 for a short while into the setting sun, and I was amazed again at how calm the attitude of drivers were on the road. It was disorganised, yes, but everything from earth movers to a friendly-looking yellow bus always ‘gave side'. ‘Okay, by by', Punjab. Thank you for your graceful hospitality.
Night had fallen now, and we had just crossed the border into Himachal Pradesh. I had thankfully brought along enough stock of my brand of cancer sticks, since Gold Flake Kings are rarely seen in this state, according to a veteran of the area. We downed a quick chai and settled back into the Terrano's brilliant driving position, ready to complete the remaining 100 kays or so to our final hill station destination of Palampur.
A slightly crestfallen few miles followed, since we realised we were not going to able to see any of the undoubtedly stunning vistas during our climb up to Kangra Valley. But we needn't have worried, since we were to witness the beauty of a Himachal sunrise later on. And driving was absolutely phenomenal here, with combinations of flowing third-gear corners, second cog C-bends, and the occasional hairpin turn. Of noteworthy mention was the Terrano's excellent outward visibility, with the curved A-pillar allowing full view of the curving tarmac without the need to bend forward, as is the case with so many vehicles nowadays.
While there was some traffic, the road to Palampur was mostly wide, and although no asphalt existed in places, we made good time up to Kangra airport, the gathering point before the final section to Taragarh Hotel, our converted-palace accommodation for the night. Our brief escapades to the aforementioned Gurudwara and our Son of the Soil drag meet in Punjabiyat meant our lead position was now last place, but this was no race. And we could still pace our liquid intake, since the bar was to remain open till late...
I blinked my eyes open to a chilly but gorgeous early morn. No better way to begin November, I thought, as the coffee alerted us to the last of the Son of the Soil experience: a visit to Norbulingka Tibetan Institute in Dharamsala. We were to carry on this part of the journey in a, grin, 110 PS Terrano-the restricted turbo lag and extremely impressive performance and handling really warmed me to Nissan's flagship. One day, maybe...
The 35-kilometre journey to the institute took us through the winding roads of Palampur district, and it was on this leg that the awesome majesty of the Himalayas finally shone through. We saw the morning sun glistening off the Dhauladhar range of the Roof of the World, and that alone made the long flight, the night driving, and restricted sleep entirely worth it.
An opportunity to capture the enjoyable Terrano with the stunning 7 o' clock mountain backdrop presented itself, and it was almost as if the popular SUV jumped at the opportunity for a Himachal selfie. A background like that will make anything look good, but the Terrano's tough profile suited it rather nicely.
The institute was a replica of the Norbulingka Monastery in Tibet which was set up by the Dalai Lama. We enjoyed a quiet continental brekky in the beautiful premises of the institute that exuded an infectious sense of spirituality and calm.
It was time for the trek to Jammu now, and we were hurried into our cabs since the clock was ticking. A five-hour ride to the airport awaited us, and our transport was three trusty Innovas, a vehicle popular in these parts because of low maintenance needs and extreme reliability. One of them had actually completed over 7 lakh kilometres without an engine rebuild, explained our friendly driver!
We made our way down towards Pathankot, around a 100 kilometres away, and encountered an example of why the Himalayas, while majestic and absolutely stunning, can be unforgiving to driver error. The driver of a truck had misjudged a turn on to a narrow bridge and tipped it over right at the entry, and it lay on its side precariously close to the edge. Luckily, it seemed like the occupants of the lorry would have gotten away with injury, and not death, as is so often the case in road mishaps in these parts.
Our trip had taken us through Punjab and Himachal so far, but now it was time to enter the third state of our trip, Jammu and Kashmir. The pesky border police were treated with some disdain by our driver—what he muttered under his breath when the cop asked for money is best left to the imagination...
While we were a trifle worried about making our flight earlier, there was actually plenty of time to allow us a tea break. Some hours had ensued since breakfast, and the lady owner of Puneet Chat House was picked to deliver us a local dal wada preparation, which went down an absolute treat.
The cab turned into Jammu's tiny airport premises a couple of hours later and post rigorous security checks and a terrible mini-pizza, I boarded the homeward bound aircraft. Punjab and Himachal had ended as quickly as it begun, but the mountain gods had decided to prolong the goodbye, it seemed, and put on one last spectacular show that I was able to witness from my window seat. Heaven must be in the Himalayas.