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.

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