KWID KHARDUNG LA ADVENTURE
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
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