India is a diverse nation and Jammu & Kashmir is a land of diverse beauty. Winter covers the entire region with a blanket of snow and the sight of gigantic mountains with tiny hamlets spread at their feet looked breathtakingly beautiful from the airplane window as we descended into Srinagar - so much so that none of the passengers could refrain from using their cellphone cameras even after repeated requests from the airline crew to turn off all electronic devices while landing. But while our fellow passengers had an expression of being overwhelmed at the sight of the Himalayas, us hacks from OVERDRIVE had a wide grin spread across our faces. After all, our Winter Drive was about to begin.
Bert had beaten the rest of us to Srinagar and had landed a day prior to our arrival. His reasoning was that he was going to do a recce run for all the segments that we had planned for the Winter Drive. But as it turned out, he was having a good time going up and down the mountain roads, sliding around in the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. In fact, by the time he picked us all up from the Srinagar airport, he probably had a ready list of which corners were dangerous and which ones were fun!
An auto-enthusiast himself, Abhay Deol was always trying to do something new with the Mercedes-Benz SUVs
The road to Gulmarg looks great in these freezing temperatures, but can get tricky and snow chains become imperative.
We all drove up to a small town called Gulmarg, which sits in the hills ahead of the state capital. It is also touching distance from the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan. Gulmarg is well-known among tourists for its Gondola (cable car) - one of the highest in the world - and ski slopes. While the word 'Gulmarg' literally means 'a meadow of flowers', the month of January had hidden away this definition under a thick blanket of snow. But the sub-zero conditions did not stop the casual tourists from flocking to the hill station - including a flurry of Bollywood celebs. In fact, we met more of them in Gulmarg than at the Auto Expo 2014, minus the crowd.
Snow chains aid in giving traction in the slippery ice
The briefing sessions were full of laughter, food, drink, snow - and of course - celebrities!
Our drive to Gulmarg included a quick stop at Tanmarg - a plateau before the hills that stocks most supplies. Our GL-Class was running street tyres and so the traction on the winding roads was compromised. Therefore we got a pair of snow chains fixed on the rear (driven) wheels. Since most of the snow chains that are leased out in Tanmarg are made for people carriers like the Tavera, Sumo and Innova, finding a pair that would fit the 295-section rubber was a task. But eventually we installed one and drove up to our destination - the Khyber resort. It is the most popular luxury resort in this part of the world and because the owners are hardcore petrolheads themselves, they decided to extend their support to the OVERDRIVE Winter Drive by way of a royal accommodation, spa, Wazwan cuisine and pretty much everything that their property had to offer!
The road to Gulmarg looks great in these freezing temperatures, but can get tricky and snow chains become imperative.
Abhay Deol tried different features in the Mercedes ML-Class
The Merc meters give a grim reminder of the temperature outside the cabin
By evening we were joined by the rest of the people who were going to be a part of the Winter Drive. We had seven participants who had signed up for living life in OVERDRIVE. They hailed from various parts of the country, but their passion for cars is what brought them to this drive. Also joining us in the evening was the elite support crew - five-time national rally champion Hari Singh and Himalayan Motorsport Association president Vijay Parmar. Since the Himalayas are nothing short of being their playground, they were the go-to people for any car setup and driving instructions. They joined Bert to brief the participants of the Winter Drive on the various activities that we had planned for the two days of the event.
The team of participants went to sleep soon after, for the next day was to start early. Meanwhile we made sure that the cars were ready with all the decals, a fresh dose of fuel and with more robust snow chains. By midnight,under the yellow garden-lights of the Khyber resort, stood the three Mercedes Benz SUVs on the freezing ice - a grey ML 350 CDI, a maroon GL 350 CDI and a silver GL 350 CDI Launch Edition.
Omar Abdullah, the flamboyant J&K chief minister, lit up the scene on day two with his sheer enthusiasm about automobiles.
He summed up his experience saying, It was a completely new experience. I have never been able to throw a car around like this!"
The next morning, one of the many restaurants within the Khyber resort, served us a lovely breakfast spread. The participants however, were eager to get behind the wheels of the SUVs. It was evident as all the seven participants joined the support crew in the parking lot, a few minutes ahead of the scheduled time. The tourists started gathering too - as the three Mercedes-Benz SUVs posing with all those decals and snow chains was quite a sight. But soon the crowd had another attraction to point their cell phones and cameras at - Abhay Deol!
By the end of day one, most participants had learnt more than just throttle control.
The actor joined us for the first day of the Winter Drive. Abhay was pretty excited at the idea of taking the Mercedes-Benz SUVs for a drive in the snow. The fact that we had procured permissions to cordon off certain parts within Gulmarg, only made the idea sound more enticing. Our destination for the day was about 5km from the resort. The drive up to this place was particularly exciting for the road was filled with powdered snow. It had lazy tourists being pulled around on sledges and there were over enthusiastic cab drivers going up and down the road doing what seemed like practice runs for the next Formula D championship. So the idea was not only to make sure that the ML and GLs didn't slide around too much on the public roads, but also to take preventive measures to avoid getting hit by any of the drifting people-carriers.
The Khyber resort offers the kind of views that most city dwellers like us have only seen in romantic flicks
The view is equally breathtaking on the inside
The resort carefully knits the Kashmiri culture and design with modern day luxuries and amenities
After driving through winding roads and passing schools and army camps, we reached a straight road that seemed to disappear into a bright, white glow - more so for people who weren't wearing any sunglasses. A few metres later the glow turned into an endless piece of undulated land that seemed like a gigantic tub of vanilla ice cream that was reflecting every bit of sunlight that was falling on it. In summer, this place is a lush-green golf course that has hosted some of the most prestigious golfing championships in India. In winter, it turns into a big, white playground - so big that the mammoth GL-Class and the seven participants next to it looked like a fair young lady and seven dwarfs from a certain fairytale.
The snow chains offer grip on the tricky, icy surfaces
But they don't prevent the car from digging into a pile of snow
When we reached it, our playground was full of army men using the slopes for their ski practice. The sight was amazing. I for one had seen snow for the first time - and that too in such abundance. I'm sure there were others like me in the group. So by the time everyone was done with the customary taking of photographs and throwing snowballs, the crew got talking to the army men and requested them to evacuate the golf course. For today, it belonged to us!
A course was then laid out for the fun to begin. It resembled the figure of eight - much like the course that most of you drove a two-wheeler on for getting your driver's license. This one was larger though. It was laid out to train the participants how to slow down on the snow, tackle a turn and accelerate out. Hari Singh was the trainer for this one and his first disciple was Abhay Deol himself. The actor drives an SUV and the Mercedes Benz sports tourer, the B-Class, whenever he finds time to get behind the wheel. But since driving on snow isn't the kind of stuff that his regular driving involves, he was particularly interested in learning the ropes.
This particular track was full of powdered snow, which meant it offered enough traction, but braking hard for a turn would mean that Teutonic SUVs could dig right in. So the idea was to slow down gradually, start aiming for the turn, get a feel of the slip, be steady with the momentum, tackle the turn and accelerate out, letting the 4MATIC trickery play its part. While the 4MATIC can gauge the slip and adjust torque to the wheels to avoid further slippage, it doesn't prevent the vehicle from digging into knee-deep snow especially with those street tyres on it. Acceleration therefore, has to be modulated. Though it may sound simple, the throttle modulation isn't as easy as the stuff you pull off in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It didn't take too long for our Bollywood hero to get a hang of the track and the ML-Class and by the time he got out of the SUV, he had a wide grin on his face. The story was more or less similar for the participants who got behind the wheel. The course was modified at various intervals to ensure maximum fun, as the multiple attempts to drive on the same section would lead to the snow being kicked off the original track.
With most participants getting the hang of driving in the knee-deep snow, we decided to up the ante with a slalom course. We kept it simple - six cones arranged in a straight line at a distance of about 50 metres from each other. The idea was simple too - perform the slalom, take a U-turn at the last cone, come back to the starting point. The surface was powdered snow again - or 'white sugar' as the rallyists like to call it - but this time the layer wasn't too deep. The ML-Class was replaced with the mammoth - the GL. The rules of car control remained the same, but the slalom required better reflexes and planning.
It is a no-brainer that the slalom course was more fun than the previous one, but with the GL-Class making its weight and size evident with the kind of momentum it carried, it would often drift far away from the course and dig into the snow. That also gave us a chance to train the participants of the Winter Drive on the various procedures of rescuing a car that is stuck in snow. By the end of the day, most of the crew had not only gone sideways around the entire golf course, but they had also practically acquainted themselves with techniques like winching the car out; using a shovel to help the tyres grip; and applying the 'rocking' method to build momentum for driving the car out of a snow pile.
By sunset, the entire playground was full of tread marks, making it look like a box of vanilla ice cream from an all-you-can-eat buffet. In fact, an all-you-can-eat buffet is what we treated ourselves to at the Khyber resort that night. The amazing food and drink got the participants discussing the activities of the day. One of the participants, Pankaj Agarwal, summed up the adventure by saying that it was an experience of a lifetime. Like many others, Agarwal had earlier visited Kashmir as a tourist, but driving the fabulous Mercedes-Benz SUV in a manner that was so much fun, was something unique to the Winter Drive.
The next day started with an early morning wake up call and all of us drove back to the golf course. A Prinoth Husky had worked hard all night to lay all the snow back in place and had made our playground appear untouched. The participants, who had missed out on the slalom course the previous day, were to have their quota of fun on day two. But before the action could start, we met our next guest at the Winter Drive!
Picture this - a few swanky SUVs drive up the road to the golf course; bodyguards with big guns march out from them, indicating a VIP had arrived. Then you suddenly hear the loud roar of a 600cc, parallel twin, two-stroke motor revving hard and approaching the gathering crowd from the opposite end of the golf course. A snowmobile arrives in style and the man astride it is none other than the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir - Omar Abdullah. The man is flamboyant and his entry felt like it was straight out of a James Bond or Ethan Hunt movie.
As he got off the snowmobile, people surrounded him for photographs and autographs. He finally greeted us and made his way to the GL-Class. The man knows his cars - and he made it evident with the way he drove the gigantic GL around the slalom course. He hardly hit any cone or flag and even brought the SUV back to the starting point with a long, controlled drift. The chief minister did not need any training. If anything, there was something to learn from him - no matter how busy a bloke you are, it isn't impossible to cultivate your love for automobiles!
While Omar Abdullah kept juggling between driving the SUVs, riding the snowmobile and posing with his fans and followers, the participants of the Winter Drive continued to the next segment of the initiative - driving in an icy mountain pass. For this bit, we had chosen the road that leads to a place called Buta Patri - an army base closer to the LoC. Snow and pine trees flanked the trail that led up to it. The afternoon sunlight was warm enough to melt the top layer of snow on the road, thus making the trail's surface icy. Such a surface offers very little traction and the slightest of inclines can even make a stationary vehicle slide for a few feet.
Hari Singh and Rohitaaz Kumar made sure that they imparted all the right instructions to the participants throughout this trail. Both the GL-Class SUVs were chosen for this segment. The throttle and brake modulation that everyone had practiced so far had to be put to use on this trail, but with utmost precision. The trail's downhill sections also enabled the team to get acquainted with the GL's hill descent control (DSC) gadgetry, which helps the 2.5 tonne SUV crawl safely without any input from the driver. As one of our participants, Ashish Samant, put it, The road conditions were severe and during the descents, the DSC worked very well." There were of course, quite a few close calls as the cars had to slow down for the commuting army vehicles and the icy surface wouldn't let the SUVs stay in one place. But with proper instructions from the crew and precise execution of the same by the participants, the SUVs returned back to base without incident.
With nightfall, the two days of fun had concluded. At an elevation of 8,830 feet above sea level, Gulmarg did not induce any altitude sickness, but the chill was certainly taxing on the body. Despite that, our crew and participants were certainly left craving more. The cherry on the cake was the wonderful food, the refreshing Kahwa and the warm water pool at the Khyber resort. All of it helped us relax and let the wonderful experience of the two days of the OVERDRIVE Winter Drive sink in. After all, it isn't everyday that you can buy a package tour that not only lets you play with snow at a luxury resort, but also lets you get behind the wheel of some gorgeous vehicles and do things that you will seldom do in your own car.