Honda Drive to Discover: Elevating spirits in Sikkim and north West Bengal

Honda lineup of cars for India were at their capable best as the 12th edition of the company's annual Drive to Discover took place in the charming hil
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Honda
The 12th edition of Honda Drive to Discover took place in the scenic hills of north Bengal and Sikkim.
Honda
The 12th edition of Honda Drive to Discover took place in the scenic hills of north Bengal and Sikkim.

The winter chill has firmly settled and it is that time of the year again when the hills call out to break the grind of mundane city living. As hoards of travellers from northern Indian states make way further up towards the majestic hills of Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and even Jammu and Kashmir, the pristine beauty of the same Himalayan range extends well into the eastern half of our diverse country, relatively untouched and definitely less crowded. To feast on the sights, to let in the smells and to soak in the spirit of these parts, a road trip may well be the most authentic option at hand. And fortunately, that's just what the folks at Honda Cars India agreed upon as well for the 12th edition of their Drive to Discover experience.

The 12th edition of Honda Drive to Discover, an annual and multi-day drive experience across various parts of our extremely diverse country saw the Japanese car maker bringing out its entire India lineup - Amaze, City, City Hybrid and of course, Elevate - the latest superstar in the family and the company's only SUV for the market at present.

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Over the course of the next four days, these four models were at the ready for automotive journalists assembled in Siliguri from where, the drive up through northern West Bengal and Sikkim promised generous glimpses into what these parts of our country has on offer. This is a recap of an epic drive:

Day 1: Siliguri to Gangtok - 112 kms

The official start to the 12th edition of Honda Drive to Discover began from the bustling city of Siliguri, a short 15-minute drive from the airport in Bagdogra where we landed. It may have been December but the cold was clearly an unknown season here. A quick lunch and the convoy of Honda cars were ready for the taking. Our first vehicle was a Honda Elevate with a manual gearbox, draped in a rather polarising shade of Blue or Obsidian Blue Pearl, as Honda likes to refer it to.

Honda Elevate
Patchy roads between Siliguri and Gangtok were no match for the comfort offered by the plush cabin of Honda Elevate.
Honda Elevate
Patchy roads between Siliguri and Gangtok were no match for the comfort offered by the plush cabin of Honda Elevate.

Making our way out of Siliguri was a bit tricky because of the narrow by-lanes and narrower main roads. And yes, that's exactly how it is because a wide variety of cars, people and animals compete for each inch of space on these main city stretches. And the Elevate has big enough proportions for us to be extra cautious against possible scratches and scrapes. Thankfully though, NH 10 opened itself soon enough and although the highway is mostly divided into just two lanes, it was well paved for half our total journey distance today.

The highway passes through green stretches before the hills begin to make their presence felt - nip in the air and a fresh aroma. Visual confirmation came just a few minutes after as the climb began.

While the highway remained decent within West Bengal, it soon began to be interspaced with patches where road construction was being carried out. These patches became more frequent as we crossed into Sikkim, throwing up quite a lot of dust. The Elevate, however, remained nicely composed at moderate speeds with the relatively slick gearshifts. Of course, the climb itself wasn't exactly steep which helped matters enormously.

Dusk soon gave way to dark and because of the two-lane roads interspaced with construction work, there were also patches of traffic snarls which made Google Maps on the 10.25-inch infotainment screen do several rethinks on our ETA. But all along the route, accompanied by the impressive Teesta river by the side, the SUV managed to tackle bumps and potholes quite well. What obviously helped the SUV is its high ground clearance of 208 mm and extremely well-cushioned seats.

But no amount of seat cushioning can make up for the frustration of expecting to complete a journey in four hours and taking six instead. It was nine at night when we finally entered through the gates of our hotel in the capital of Sikkim - tired but mighty excited too.

Day 2: Gangtok to Nathu La to Gangtok - 120 kms

If Siliguri from a day earlier was warm, Gangtok in the morning was pleasantly cold - not freezing but chilly enough to get the jackets out of our bags. This was just as well because today was the day we go higher still and up until the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Nathu La.

A leisurely breakfast of momos and thupka is where we were told that a shiny White Honda City sedan was our car for the day. There is something about the City that just brings back fond memories and we eagerly stepped in to drive out.

Gangtok, much like its food, has a leisurely vibe about it. It may have been 10 in the morning but there was no iota of road congestion anywhere as we passed through the main city centres. And in just 15 minutes, we were out on NH 310 and well on course for Nathu La pass.

Honda City
Fog and cold en route Nathu La brings forth a driving experience like few others. The Honda City managed to make the climb with minimal fuss.
Honda City
Fog and cold en route Nathu La brings forth a driving experience like few others. The Honda City managed to make the climb with minimal fuss.

It is here on NH 310 that Sikkim opened up to us in all its glory. The highway, done and maintained by BRO (Border Road Organisation) were smooth and the climb was nothing short of breathtaking. The sun kept peeping from between the clouds and the prayer flags all along the route fluttered to the tune of the high-altitude winds.

The outside temperature kept dipping gradually - shown on the driver display screen of our City - and soon enough, it was in the lower single digit Celsius range.

The climb today was significantly steeper than what it was yesterday and while the City was at its characteristic best on straight stretches, the CVT began with its familiar grunts and groans soon. Can we cut it some slack? Making way to an elevation of around 12,500 feet - where oxygen thins out - compelled us to forgive the sedan which otherwise did its fair bit to pull itself and its three relatively well-built gentlemen from Delhi up.

Soon enough, the first sights of snow emerged from around the horizon and the pristine view of the oval-shaped Tsongmo Lake emerged from around a bend. Also called Changgu Lake, the water body at 12,310 feet had only just started to freeze over - a state it will be in for the rest of the winter months. Small villages aside, population around here is extremely sparse with most of the habitation reserved for security forces.

Honda City
The Honda City is parked next to a road overlooking the extremely scenic Tsongmo Lake.
Honda City
The Honda City is parked next to a road overlooking the extremely scenic Tsongmo Lake.

Special permissions are also required from here for private vehicles to make way till around five kilometres before Nathu La where taxis are deputed for the final climb. We promptly parked our car where our IDs were checked, got into a tourist vehicle and headed towards the pass

Interestingly, December is an off-season month here at Nathu La and so, while there were several tourists still, the border post wasn't buzzing with tourists. And as we stepped out of the taxi, the cold hit all of us smack in the face and in the gut. Windy and the air noticeably lacking oxygen, Nathu La can be intimidating. A flight of stairs to the final checkpoint can be even more so - the sight of a couple of people fainting was not too encouraging either.

But if the City's CVT could get us till just after Tsongmo Lake, it would have been a shame for us not to do the final climb. And what a sight once you do - there is no pomp and patriotic splendour as on key border posts with Pakistan in Punjab. Instead, it is the vastness of the mammoth hills on either side, the silence and the cold that brings out the silent emotions of awe. Photography is strictly banned here and two nearly adjacent buildings - one with an India flag and the other flying the Chinese flag - tell you that this is where man has divided the landscape.

An around 30-minute stay is good enough here and we soon headed back to our taxi and then to our Honda City to make our way back to Gangtok. The drive back was all about the sedan coming into its own element and responding to throttle inputs with eager willingness. The well-weighted steering was an absolute delight too and we made the most of it on the numerous bends and curves that yawned till the outskirts of Gangtok.

Day 3: Gangtok to Pelling - 130 kms

Another day and another leisurely start, this time away from Gangtok and towards the sleepy town of Pelling, famous for some of the best views of Kanchenjunga and a skywalk that promises scenic surrounds all around. Although just over 100 kms, the drive was through hilly terrain and for today, our ride was in a Honda Elevate CVT.

Honda Elevate
The CVT on the Honda Elevate is tailormade for convenience but as long as the roads are level and there is no jarring elevation gain.
Honda Elevate
The CVT on the Honda Elevate is tailormade for convenience but as long as the roads are level and there is no jarring elevation gain.

Now the popularity of automatic transmissions is rising rapidly in the country and among various kinds of automatics, CVT holds a place of prominence. But this is as long as it is not meant to do uphill climbs.

On expected lines then, the CVT did groan and grunt a fair bit through the course of our drive, also because we were climbing nearly 2,000 feet towards our final destination. Through some of the most scenic and sparsely populated roads just outside of Gangtok, the Elevate made good progress and we soaked in Sikkim at its pristine best. Obviously, the air was getting steadily colder but with every mile munched, the excitement became more and more palpable.

The road between Gangtok and Pelling is mostly narrow and stretches closer to the small town are also far from perfect. But once again, the Elevate managed to clear everything with superb ease. Several small stops for clicks and one lengthy break for lunch later, we arrived at Pelling after a drive of around seven hours. Although cloudy and significantly colder than anywhere else on our drive experience so far, Pelling is custom-made for anyone who wants to be away from the crowds and connected with nature at its rawest best.

kanchenjunga
Pelling offers some of the most amazing views of the mountain range in Sikkim and on a clear day, the Kanchenjunga is a mighty sight to behold.
kanchenjunga
Pelling offers some of the most amazing views of the mountain range in Sikkim and on a clear day, the Kanchenjunga is a mighty sight to behold.

Day 4: Pelling to Kalimpong, via Darjeeling - 122 kms

The day began nice and early with a quick check on the Chenrezig statue and skywalk. The skywalk itself is a unique highlight of the region even if it isn't outright scary. But the 42-meter-tall Chenrezig statue is a sight to not miss and provides a magnificent view of the peaks and valleys all around.

Chenrezig
Inaugurated in 2018, the site of the Chenrezig statue is a major tourist attraction in the region.
Chenrezig
Inaugurated in 2018, the site of the Chenrezig statue is a major tourist attraction in the region.

Once done, we steered our Blue Honda City towards the tea estates of Darjeeling. Now the distance of 70 kms may not seem like much but the roads are far from being in their perfect condition. The scenery remains pleasant but the person behind the wheel has the ominous task of staying focused on the track ahead - narrow, nasty and often completely broken. But here is also where the City sedan threw plenty of surprises because despite its perceived low ground clearance, it managed to somehow avoid any underbody scraping.

The climb on the twisties on the outskirts of Darjeeling were enormously challenging but the final 20 minutes towards one particular tea estate where we were to have our lunch stop was absolutely gorgeous. A slight chill, clean air and freshly-brewed tea was just the cocktail we needed to pick ourselves up from the gruelling drive in and get set for the final drive of the day.

Darjeeling
A visit to Darjeeling is obviously incomplete without getting a taste of fresh tea picked from the estates here.
Darjeeling
A visit to Darjeeling is obviously incomplete without getting a taste of fresh tea picked from the estates here.

By early evening, it was time to get a move on towards Kalimpong and we made our way through the busy Darjeeling center and onto narrow mountain roads, a distance of around 50 kms. The sun soon began setting, early as is customary in the eastern parts of the country, but fortunately, the roads all the way till Kalimpong were relatively good and free from obstacles. It is also a stretch that does not see much traffic at this time of the day and therefore, we made quick time.

Day 5: Kalimpong to Siliguri - 70 kms

Honda City
Honda cars have long been known for their reliability and this is not just limited to city drives but as experienced through the entire course of Drive to Discover, go well into the less explored treasures of the country.
Honda City
Honda cars have long been known for their reliability and this is not just limited to city drives but as experienced through the entire course of Drive to Discover, go well into the less explored treasures of the country.

Driving to discover the scenic hills of Sikkim and northern West Bengal was a cocktail of experiences. While the roads may not have been perfect at all times, the untouched and untamed beauty of these parts of the country hold enormous amount of potential. And through it all were Honda cars that proved their mettle regardless of the conditions - roads as well as weather.

Our last leg of the drive before the flight back to home base was in the City once again and this was all about a leisurely climb down towards the hustle and bustle of Siliguri. It gave generous amount of time to reflect on all that we had experienced over the past several days. That the Honda cars went from the highs of Nathu La and through the patchy roads of Darjeeling - and everything in the middle - puts enough faith in modern-day machines. Honda cars may not be the fanciest in their respective segments but when it comes to the sheer strength of Japanese engineering, the likes of the City and Elevate sure give ample opportunities to discover as one drives.

First Published Date: 05 Feb 2024, 14:25 PM IST
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