In In­dia, if you ever want to en­joy a four-wheeled ad­ven­ture of a life­time, then Ladakh is the place to go — specif­i­cally Khardung La. So that’s where we headed, driv­ing the Re­nault Kwid AMT, and here’s an ac­count of our jour­ney

Car India - - TRAVELOGUE - Story: Har­ket Suchde Pho­tog­ra­phy: Sau­rabh Botre

On a hu­mid and swel­ter­ing morn­ing I stand smack out­side the Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van in the heart of New Delhi, with passers-by giv­ing me strange looks be­fore their eyes flicker to and pause at the car that stands but a few feet away from me. There’s no deny­ing that the Re­nault Kwid is an eye-catcher, an at­tribute that is only am­pli­fied when there’s a pho­tog­ra­pher with his cam­era and all his at­ten­tion fo­cused on it. Af­ter a brisk nod of the head from Sau­rabh to sig­nify that he is done with his shots, we hop in, twist the AMT dial to Drive, and drive off, the air-con mer­ci­fully bless­ing us with a waft of cool air. The in-car GPS (yeah, the Kwid has a touch­screen Me­dia NA V), is set to Manali, our des­ti­na­tion for the day. With the mu­sic blar­ing (it has USB, Blue­tooth, and Aux-in too), and the car shift­ing gears au­to­mat­i­cally, I quickly get into the groove be­hind the wheel and start to cover dis­tance. The mod­ern and in­no­va­tive dig­i­tal in­stru­ment clus­ter quickly climbs to bold num­bers.

Soon enough, the crowded city streets of New Delhi gave way to the NH 44 — the long­est high­way in In­dia in terms of to­tal dis­tance cov­ered. It’s a wide six-laner that is thank­fully bereft of too much traf­fic, al­low­ing me to ex­ploit the Kwid’s dex­ter­ity and its 1.0-litre three­cylin­der mill to flex its mus­cles. As con­sis­tent triple-digit speeds see us cross Pa­ni­pat, Ku­ruk­shetra and Am­bala in quick suc­ces­sion, I hit the Chandi­garh by­pass and dis­patch it with sim­i­lar ease, only at a slightly slower pace due to the nar­row­ing roads and in­creas­ing traf­fic on this bit. Soon enough, though, the Chandi­garh by­pass was be­hind us, and af­ter driv­ing over steel-struc­tured bridges that forded over trib­u­taries of the deep blue Sut­lej River, we ar­rived at the ab­so­lute foothills of the Hi­malayas at Swarghat. From there it was a long drive al­most con­stantly up­hill, stuck be­hind slow trucks. By the time Manali’s twin­kling lights shone through the Kwid’s wind­screen, we were well into the night. We gave in to the temp­ta­tion of deep slum­ber al­most as soon as we ar­rived at our ho­tel room.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we were up at the crack of dawn, the Gu­laba check post, the en­try­way into Ro­htang Pass, be­ing our des­ti­na­tion. Be­fore that, how­ever, we de­cided to make a de­tour into Vashisht and grab a quick but whole­some break­fast. The view from the restau­rant over­look­ing the val­ley and peaks was mes­meris­ing. Af­ter break­fast it was time to ful­fil bu­reau­cratic re­quire­ments at the check post. I had gone on­line the pre­vi­ous day and filled in the nec­es­sary form and paid the Rs 50 re­quired for the per­mit to go past the check post and, armed with a print­out, I was waved through to the other side.

We were well and truly in the moun­tains now: treecov­ered, snow-capped, mes­meris­ing, tan­ta­lis­ing, breath­tak­ing, ti­tanic moun­tains. Tear­ing my eyes away from the land­scape and glu­ing them on to the roads was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult now, but you’ve got do it, so I forced my­self to wrench my eyes away from the sky­line to fo­cus on the path ahead. A good idea, too, be­cause from Gu­laba there was a wind­ing road lead­ing straight through the clouds and up above them. The Kwid’s fog-lamps helped with vis­i­bil­ity in the misty

bits, and the car’s Out­back Bronze shade shim­mered in the sun­light as we broke through the cloud cover — driv­ing above the fluffy white balls of vapour, jam­min’ to some tunes and en­joy­ing the clean, fresh, and in­vig­o­rat­ing moun­tain air.

Key­long and Jispa flew past, and we ar­rived at Zingz­ing­bar, where we had a de­lec­ta­ble break­fast of mo­mos and omelettes be­fore check­ing in at the check post and driv­ing on. Mak­ing easy work of the wa­ter cross­ings and mud patches just af­ter Zingz­ing­bar, thanks to its im­pres­sive 180 mil­lime­tres of ground clear­ance, and show­ing im­pres­sive cor­ner­ing sta­bil­ity around the cur­va­ceous tar­mac that fol­lowed, the Kwid just kept on tick­ing, and the miles just kept on fly­ing by.

The roads got de­cid­edly worse af­ter cross­ing Bar­alacha La, all the way till Sarchu, our rest stop for the night. The thing about Sarchu is that you have to live in tents, al­though for all you non-trekkers out there, it’s not as bad as it sounds. For you can opt for a Swiss tent which is su­per-in­su­lat­ing, and cou­pled with the thick bed-sheets and blan­kets camp­sites typ­i­cally of­fer means you’re nice and cosy, even when night ar­rives and tem­per­a­tures plum­met. In fact, our tent even had a western-style bog with run­ning wa­ter (only in the day­time, though). If you are lay­ered up enough and can stand the cold, step out­side that cosy tent once the sun has set and look up into the sky. The heav­ens ap­pear draped in a jew­el­stud­ded robe of vel­vet, glow­ing in the bask of the ev­er­last­ing light. So many stars lit­ter the sky, more than you will have ever laid your gaze upon. With an im­print of that spec­tac­u­lar night sky em­bla­zoned on to my cra­nium, I left Sarchu in my rear-view mir­ror the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

The road led through the thor­oughly en­joy­able Gata Loops and two more passes in Na­kee La and Lachung La, where the Kwid’s com­pe­tent sus­pen­sion shone through once again, be­fore I ar­rived at Pang and then the larger-than-life More Plains. The More Plains are

ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing, be­cause the sheer size and ex­pan­sive­ness of this 40-km stretch flanked by moun­tain ranges will mess with your head and con­fuse your sense of pro­por­tions. That is un­til you fo­cus on a flock of sheep graz­ing in the plains about half­way be­tween the road and the moun­tains, look­ing like a bunch of cot­ton candy lit­ter­ing the ex­panse, then you re­alise how truly mas­sive those moun­tains are.

From More Plains, we crossed De­bring, where we stopped for an­other quick bite, and took on the sec­ond high­est mo­torable pass: Taglang La. Here I need to men­tion the phe­nom­e­nal work that the Bor­der Roads Or­gan­i­sa­tion (BRO) does to keep these roads ser­vice­able and open. Ev­ery year the rain and land­slides de­stroy the roads, and ev­ery year the BRO works hard to get them back to mint con­di­tion again. Taglang La is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of just how hard they work, be­cause at least 95 per cent of the tar­mac was im­mac­u­late and, cou­pled with the gor­geous vis­tas on of­fer, meant that the drive was some­thing out of a dream.

The his­toric Thik­sey Monastery just out­side Leh

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