An ode to the SUVs in our fleet, including the Lexus LX 470 and Rangie to the Mitsubishi Outlander
twins and the Pajero. And the offbeat Mahindra Super Thar and
the Polaris S RZR 800
If there’s a better way to beat monotony than the Mahindra Adventure Monastery
Escape, we are yet to hear of it
“PACK YOUR BAGS, YOU’RE GOING ON a road trip.” The last time Sirish uttered these words I was stuck in a Swift for fifteen days driving from Udaipur (Rajasthan) to Udaipur (in Tripura!) – that too in the peak of the monsoons. A bit sadistic this editor of ours can be, and when he said to carry along a can of oxygen I reflexively began spouting excuses. “But my bag is broken…” As you’ve surmised by now the captain doesn't take no for an answer and so straight after blowing a gearbox and retiring from the South India Rally, I was on a plane to Leh to catch up with the Mahindra Adventure convoy for leg 2 of the Monastery Escape. Along with our Mahindra chaperone Snigdha, TV star Bala from NDTV along with his camera person Nazir, the four of us were tossed the keys to a Scorpio that was to be home for the next week.
Landing in Leh, I immediately realised one thing. You've got to have special talent to take a bad photograph here. There is no such thing as a bad angle. No matter how many wallpaper perfect pictures you’ve seen of the region, nothing can do justice to the real thing. Few places are at once so traveller-friendly and yet so enchanting and hassle-free as mountainframed Leh. Filled with stupas and crumbling mud-brick houses, the town is dominated by a steep rocky ridge topped by an imposing Tibetan-style palace and fort. Beneath it is the bustling bazaar area that is draped in a thick veneer of travel agencies, souvenir shops and restaurants. A web of lanes quickly fan out into a green suburban patchwork of irrigated barley fields. Here, gushing streams and narrow footpaths link traditionally styled Ladakhi buildings with flat roofs, sturdy walls and wooden window frames. Leh is a place that’s all too easy to fall in love with. Yet Leh is the appetiser. Day 2 and together with the convoy that had rocked five of the highest motorable passes in the world as they made their wayup from Manali we head to the spectacular Pangong lake 150km away. With a couple of heavily modified Mahindra Thars leading the field the convoy, as you can imagine, was quite the sight and also included two Ssangyong Rextons for the participants that registered first and second. The road to the lake takes in the Chang La pass, which at 17,800 feet is the second highest pass in Ladakh. It also gives us a taste of what Ladakh roads were like before the BRO really put their backs into it, the final few kilometres to the pass getting narrower, the surface more slippery and in quite
Leh is a place that’s all too easy to fall in
love with. Yet Leh is the
a few places you get streams flowing across the road from melting glaciers. At the top you’re greeted by Army troops stationed here to acclimatise to high altitude before being posted at the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen. There is a temple up there, called Chang La Baba ka Mandir, as well as a cabin built by the army where you can warm yourself while chatting with the soldiers. We stopped at the Chang La top for some chai and a few photo ops, but quickly pushed on, as we wanted to make it back to Leh before nightfall, while also trying to spend the maximum amount of time by the lake.
We approach Pangong Tso a little past noon, and with clear skies, the lake shimmers a brilliant blue and green. It’s so spectacular, but spectacular seems like too tame a word. This is the largest high altitude lake in the world, with a third in Tibet and the rest in India and the sheer size (604 sq km) becomes apparent when you reach the shores. The 3 Idiots point (where the movie was shot) was the centre of attraction and after spending a couple of hours there, we headed back towards the Army canteen for lunch of Maggi and chai and headed back to Leh before sunset.
The next day we do the expedition name justice and after breakfast at the famous German Bakery (where the editor and Mahindra Adventure boss Bijoy Kumar spent their rest day back when they were regulars on the Raid de Himalaya), we head out to spin prayer wheels at a few monasteries.
On the road to the Hermes monastery I borrowed one of the Thars and quickly realised why Ouseph is so fond of this 'jeep'. The high driving position, nonsensical nature of the cabin and strong engine make for a fun driving experience. It may not handle too well, but that would be missing the point of the Thar. It's meant to make you feel connected and involved and that's something I really loved as we drove along for 50 odd kilometres before reaching the monastery.
We sat through a prayer session in the main hall and paid our respects to the beautiful Buddha statue seated on the opposite side, before returning to Leh for a rajma-chawal lunch. We wandered around the market for a while before heading back to the hotel by sunset. Most people had already packed up and were loading their bags into their cars in anticipation of the 1am departure to Sonamarg in Kashmir
(350 kilometres away). Yes, AM! Which essentially meant dinner at 7 and bed by 8. In fact I saw a number of confused participants confirm with Bijoy personally at dinner that night whether he was joking about the start time. The reason for this early start is, on the way to Srinagar from Leh (via Sonamarg), you reach Zoji La where a traffic control system operates: vehicles on the road bound for Leh are allowed from 2pm to 7am, while traffic towards Srinagar can travel 7am to 2pm; you need to check and confirm these times before departing, or be prepared for a lengthy wait at the pass.
The wake-up call came in at 12, a loud hammering on everybody's doors by the organisers and with a quick briefing we hit the road. The road out of Leh passes through a flat dusty basin mostly occupied by army encampments with mile after mile of wire fencing. The scenery is supposed to be stunning, which we unfortunately missed out on as were driving in darkness. What I can tell you though, is that it is punctuated with the Indus flowing to your left, almost all the way. And the roads were absolutely brilliant to drive on. Some sections, I was told later, used as special stages during the Raid de Himalaya. Bijoy and his team kept the participants awake by quizzing them on the radio about various topics like their best memories from the adventure and playing word games with them. There was hardly any traffic at that hour and the convoy made good time as we hit Kargil by day break
and tanked up the vehicles. On the banks of the river Suru, we stopped briefly for breakfast before leaving for the Drass war memorial. There are dramatic scenic and cultural changes as you go from verdant ascetic Buddhist Ladakh to Muslim Kashmir. Because of political unrest in Kashmir, this route, which runs very close to the Line of Control, may be closed to travellers at some points during the year.
Having crossed Kargil, we drove ahead through the winding mountains, the landscape had become completely barren by now. We were far away from civilisation. But the road just kept getting better and better. As the morning sun shone on the glistening barren mountains, the newly laid and well-marked roads were by far the best 50 odd kilometres we drove on during the trip. It was possibly the best stretch of road that I've driven on in the country. Corner after corner of inch perfect roads, resembling the stages of the Monte Carlo rally. And bringing out the rally driver in me. They are the kind of roads I'd wake up in the middle of the night to drive on, any day of the week. As the road got better and better, my fellow passengers got quieter and quieter. In their defence, there was more than a little
Driving on these beautiful mountain roads, you feel a sense of calm that takes over you and you feel enchanted
bit of tyre squeal as I drove the Scorpio pretty much to its limit around every corner. Driving on these beautiful mountain roads, you feel a sense of calm that takes over you and you feel enchanted, to say the least. It sort of frees up your mind, making you forget all your worldly worries and a sense of freedom sets in. We had covered the distance to Drass in less than an hour, by far the fastest we had averaged on the entire trip.
As we reached the war memorial, we were briefed by an army officer, who told us the history behind the Kargil war, the brave encounters faced by our soldiers and officers of the Indian Army, while also pointing out some seriously significant facts that most of us were unaware of. Dras happens to be the second coldest place of inhabitation during winters, after Siberia, with temperatures dropping to as low as 50 degrees Celsius below zero. By the end of the brief, there was absolute silence and more than a few tears shed in memory of those who had lost their lives during the war and in admiration of those who continue to live on, while continuing to serve our nation. We also visited the museum, where the memories of the war continue to live on, with plenty of interesting photographs along with some of the actual ammunition used during combat and those captured from the Pakistani forces.
A few hours later we were on our way to wards the mighty Zoji La pass. This pass commands a
lot of respect despite being all of 10,000 feet tall. The unpaved white sandy roads, crumbly mountain edges and super narrow track makes it extremely challenging. The loose surface also meant that the tail of the car would step out occasionally, something I enjoyed correcting, but my co-passengers didn't enjoy experiencing. The additional challenge was the oncoming traffic of heavy vehicles, to whom we almost always had to give way. Which meant stopping at the extreme edge of the road on the left. With a vertical drop off the edge, it made for a very nervous co-passenger in Snigdha, who even refused to take pictures of the absolutely gorgeous scenery down there. There was a point where we precariously waited almost five gruelling minutes, right on the edge of the road for a bunch of trucks on their way to Drass. Ironically the shorter side of the road (the one we were on) was being used by trucks climbing from the Sonamarg side so we were advised by military personnel manning the fork to avoid going down that route as it was jammed with upcoming traffic. But the participants pushed each other and everyone made it down the pass safely, albeit with a few hairy moments along the way.
Sonamarg literally translates as ‘meadow of gold’ and the drive into Sonamarg takes your breath away – the scenery turning from desert-like Ladakh to thickly forested, greenvalleyed Kashmir with the Indus river gushing alongside. Twelve hours after we departed from Leh we were in our hotel in Sonamarg for lunch. Our stop is where wallpapers are made – you know the ones with a stream rushing down a pine-covered mountain covering the entire wall of an ’80s living or dining room.
The night was spent with a nice outdoor dinner, during the course of which we exchanged experiences of the mighty journey. With Srinagar being but two hours away the convoy had a lazy start but for us it was time to bid farewell and take an early morning cab ride to Srinagar airport (one of the most chaotic I’ve ever been to!).
If you love driving and love exploring I can only say one thing – book a seat on the 2015 Monastery Escape. It’s an adventure of a lifetime, one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the world as you negotiate high altitude passes, the worst roads, the best roads, deserts, Himalayan forests… the road will test you, scare you, shock you and leave you spellbound. You will believe life is beautiful! Around every bend is a picture-perfect postcard. You cannot take a bad picture. It’s utterly mind blowing. And it forces you to come back.
In fact the Raid de Himalaya is next month. Time to sort out that gearbox and find a sponsor.