India and Pakistan — our differences may seem irreconcilable, but our histories are deeply entwined. Ours isn’t a war for profit, instead it is one of identities, honour and egos. However, apart from what’s happening at the borders, there has been another battle raging in the hearts of metropolises around the world — one that doesn’t involve bullets and guns. The weapons are far more crude, a wooden club, a projectile made of cork wrapped in leather, and our fists. Yes, most Indians take a cricket match with Pakistan just as seriously as they do the border skirmishes, except they have less blood and a lot more entertainment.
It was a Sunday, the day of the 2017 Champions Trophy final. India was playing Pakistan. The fact that these two were going head to head was enough to bring most of the country to a standstill, the fact that it was a final and there was a cup at stake meant all of it was most certainly going to be at a standstill. By extension, the roads would be empty and that meant it was time for a road trip. Sure, I’d be missing the match but here at evo India, open roads take precedence over sitting in front of the tube. No matter what is on (I also missed Le Mans!). However, we couldn’t entirely ignore the fact that a high-stakes cricket match with our neighbours was taking place, and so we decided to add an element of the game to our drive. Instead of driving around aimlessly — which is a lot of fun, I assure you — we decided to drive up to the highest cricket ground in the world.
When you’ve got a winding road to drive on, you want a car that is fast, sharp and precise. A body on frame SUV is probably not at the top of your list. However, when the winding roads are in the Himalayas, the SUV gets bumped right to the top of said list. You see, the Himalayas are unpredictable. At one moment, you’d think you’re on the Transfargaran highway and the next you’re babying your car over ruts big enough to swallow a scooter. You need something that can cover ground at a fair clip but can handle every thing the terrain throws at you. Bending a lower arm at sub-zero temperatures with no one around for miles can’t be fun. Which is where the Toyota Fortuner comes in to the picture.
The Fortuner has a lot going for it when it comes to driving in the Himalayas. Firstly, it’s huge. Now common sense would dictate that this be a disadvantage in the narrow winding roads of the mountains, however India never cared much for common sense. The Fortuner is so imposing that all lesser vehicles simply make way for it, so you’re never really being bullied around by other drivers. Secondly, it’s close to indestructible. I’ve heard legends of Toyotas that run for lakhs and lakhs of kilometres without throwing up a single issue. That’s the sort of bulletproof reliability you want to have by your side when you’re tackling the unknown. The Fortuner’s build quality is superb and you know when you set off, you will make it to your destination without the car giving up on you. Thirdly, it does all of the above while keeping you cocooned in luxury. The cabin of the Fortuner is rather well appointed — you get comfortable leather seats that can hold your derriere for hours without you feeling any sort of discomfort, you get a great sound system, navigation and a very pleasant cabin to be in. It’s all leather and wood, with touches of brushed aluminium and high quality plastic. It is a space where you don’t mind spending time, something that is essential to enjoying long road trips. It also has a bunch of features that make driving up in the hills a much easier experience. Hill hold control was called upon often enough, keeping the Fortuner in place as I got off the brakes on an incline. The four-wheel drive with the option of low-ratio was also a huge confidence booster. It wasn’t engaged too often, but it was just calming to know it was there and getting out of a sticky situation shouldn’t be too hard.
An unpredictable land
The road up to Chail was just as unpredictable as we predicted. You enter the foothills of the Himalayas just outside Chandigarh — paying a toll for the Himalayan Expressway. The road stays rather wide and is nicely paved. It lifts your spirits, gives you a taste of what a pleasure it is to drive on good roads through the mountains. This is it, you think, this is paradise. And then it slaps you with reality. About 20km in, just before Dharampur, there is practically no road. They seem to be widening that stretch of the highway (this is the same NH5 that goes up to Shimla) and have closed off two of the four lanes. The surface on the usable half fluctuates between broken tarmac and no tarmac. Traffic slows right down and well, progress is painful. This continues until you pass Dharampur and then the road opens up again, but it is no where as nice as it was when we started the drive up.
Then, to compound matters, we made a slight navigational error that proved to be a costly one. Instead of taking a left at a fork at Kumarhatti that Google Maps advised us to take as it was 19 minutes quicker, something we can attest to as we took it on the way down, we took the right that took us on the road along the railway tracks of the Kalka-Shimla toy train. The road was narrow, we kept getting pushed on to the shoulder to make way for the many buses and trucks that frequent this route. Not fun. Finally at Kandaghat you hang a right to get off the
NH 5 and head towards Chail, hoping the route gets better. It doesn’t. You continue down this road until you reach Sadhupul. A couple of years ago, Sadhupul, a small bridge across a creek collapsed and that meant to get to Chail, you had to undertake a short water crossing. This has been rebuilt so there was no such adventure to be had.
However, as you get to Chail, you begin to climb higher and higher. The roads remain as unpredictable as ever, but the landscape changes. You can tell you’re gaining altitude — the deciduous trees slowly make way for coniferous ones, the air gets chillier, and you begin to drive through the clouds.
The highest cricket ground in the world
The cricket ground itself lies at 7500 feet above sea level. This isn’t a stadium though, it is a ground on the campus of a school. The Rashtriya Military School in Chail, to be precise. And that is where the Pakistan-India connect comes in again. You see, Rashtriya Military schools were originally called the King George’s Royal Indian military schools and were built in colonial India to ensure the children of the armed forces get a proper education. It was only in 1952 that they were made in to public schools. This particular school goes way, way back. I do not have a reliable source, but if what I’ve read on the Internet is to be believed, this ground came in to existence sometime in the 1890s. That was a time when we, both India and Pakistan were one nation, subordinate to the British. Our lands were colonised, our people enslaved, our futures uncertain.
Eventually, we did win our freedom, but at a price. The land was split down the middle — India and Pakistan had been formed. 70 years on though, we’ve come a long, long way. Our battles still rage on the cricket field, but regardless of who wins, our honour and our egos remain intact. You see, the British introduced the game of cricket to us and less than a century later, we’re beating them hollow at their own game. It is a matter of pride.
By the time we reached the ground, it was early in the evening. Pakistan had put up a spectacular performance while batting, and India were attempting to chase them down. We drove the Fortuner in to our hotel, and two Indian wickets had already fallen. It seemed to be a losing battle. India eventually did lose the match, but it didn’t matter. As for me, I was just glad I had a brilliant day driving through the mountains in an SUV as capable as the Fortuner. Team India didn’t have much to look forward to the next day, but I did. I had to drive the Fortuner all the way back down.