NEXT MORN­ING WE’RE UP AND OUT AT FIVE. The cars are washed clean with the overnight rain and so are the roads. The skies have opened up. And just be­fore we reach Maneb­han­jang we see the most beau­ti­ful twin rain­bow, ever. Us­ing in­ter­na­tional roam­ing on Nepal’s NCell I feed the social me­dia mon­ster, the for­est check post waves the en­try fee since yes­ter­day was rained out (the hill peo­ple are re­ally, re­ally nice), we’re re­minded yet again not to use the drone (the track goes in and out of Nepal, it’s all on the bor­der) and we be­gin our climb. At Chitrey the skies are clear, the air fresh, the vis­tas un­be­liev­ably spec­tac­u­lar. Ev­ery phone, ev­ery camera, ev­ery­body starts fir­ing away. I breathe a sigh of re­lief. Fi­nally we’re get­ting some con­tent in the bag.

At Meghma we wipe up the cars and fire away the Great Wall pic­tures. At Tum­ling we get the clouds be­low the cars climb­ing up the hair­pins. At Gairibas we swig some black tea with salt and then man up for the climb.

This is where it gets crazy. There’s no tar­mac, it’s all rocks of vary­ing shapes and sizes. We keep the Polo light, just me be­hind the wheel and who­ever fan­cies jump­ing in and out, spot­ting ob­sta­cles on the way. We’re crawl­ing along at walk­ing pace, very care­ful not to hole the sump or rip out the front end on the nasty rocks. And it’s a race against the clouds that are fast mov­ing in. Mak­ing life even more dif­fi­cult the overnight rain has left the rocks wet and slip­pery so find­ing pur­chase is be­com­ing harder and harder. I’m now slip­ping the clutch, giv­ing it a kick in the mid­dle of the hair­pin to get the revs to jump into the meat of its power band. This isn’t easy, not by a long shot. But this is where the Polo gets our re­spect. The sus­pen­sion, if you re­mem­ber, was once too soft at the front and would scrunch the nose on sharp bumps. It doesn’t do that any­more. The ground clear­ance does not look like much, and on the high­way it does not feel un­sta­ble like all high-rid­ing cars, but we dis­cover it is ac­tu­ally pretty good and noth­ing touches. The GT now runs on 16-inch tyres and that de­liv­ers both bet­ter clear­ance as well as great grip, no mat­ter what the sur­face. Once or twice we scrape the mud­guards on the very sharp storm-wa­ter drains and very of­ten rocks have to be cleared out of the path, but the Polo isn’t say­ing enough. Up here in pure 4x4 ter­rain, this is where it gets even more spec­tac­u­lar; the red flow­ers are in bloom, the views of the val­ley are as­ton­ish­ing, the peace, quiet and iso­la­tion ex­tra­or­di­nary. Ro­hit pull out his 500mm lens in the elu­sive hope of spot­ting the Red Panda. What he gets are vul­tures. We also spot snow­capped Hi­malayan peaks, though with­out some­body with any ex­pe­ri­ence to say what is what we can’t say for

sure that we sighted the Kanchen­junga. Inch by inch the Polo climbs, the pho­tog­ra­phers fire away, and the crew run out of breath at this al­ti­tude. At a small ham­let a local comes up and asks if the Polo is a ‘four wheel gaari’ the local lingo for four-wheel drive. When I say no he’s shocked. Tashi, our Landie driver says he can re­call only one other car that has got­ten all the way up here, an Omni that the taxi as­so­ci­a­tion of Darjeeling guys pushed and brought up here in re­sponse to a chal­lenge from San­dak­phu’s Land Rover driv­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion. Come to think of it, the Polo is pos­si­bly the only FWD car to get up here.

And then the rain comes down. Hard. Hari and Aatish are soaked to the bone, guid­ing me up the track that gets more treach­er­ous the higher up it climbs. I can’t see a thing. The Land Rover is in 4-Low and slid­ing around in slush. With momentum the Polo is mak­ing it through the slush but I’m scared now, if the Polo slides it will slide off the moun­tain. And I am not wear­ing a para­chute. Momentum is the only way to make it through the slush, for the rest I’m driv­ing as slowly as pos­si­ble, just like you should when driv­ing off-road, to en­sure you can re­turn to base on your own steam. And the Polo is re­spond­ing. It is go­ing. Two days of

pound­ing it on ridicu­lously dif­fi­cult ter­rain and it is not squeak­ing or rat­tling; the body hasn’t twisted it­self into a knot. The tyres are slip­ping even more now, the rain is com­ing down harder, the vis­i­bil­ity is back to what it was yes­ter­day, but ev­ery time we think this is it, the Polo takes a step for­ward. Also the fact that turn­ing around means phys­i­cally lift­ing the Polo and turn­ing it around, is adding an ex­tra layer of mo­ti­va­tion.

With 5km to go, we meet with our for­ward crew who went up to San­dak­phu a few hours ear­lier, to sort out lunch and bank some pic­tures of snow-clad peaks. It’s snow­ing, heav­ily. There’s no vis­i­bil­ity, there’s too much slush, and there’s no way even a 4x4 will go up. This time I don’t ar­gue. Slid­ing till the edge of a 10,000 foot drop has a way of calm­ing over ex­u­ber­ance. How­ever we do need a destinatio­n to close the story so we mo­tor for an­other kilo­me­tre till Kalipokhri, a place that takes its name from the black lake. Ap­par­ently this lake never freezes over, it al­ways looks black, and there’s an eerie haunted qual­ity to it. Or so we’re told, we can barely make out the out­line of

Above: A spec­tac­u­lar dou­ble rain­bow, just be­fore we hit Maneb­han­jang. Fac­ing page: Three-wheel­ing up the steep and nar­row hair­pins. Fac­ing page be­low: The Tiguan made for the per­fect sup­port car

Left: Team evo In­dia tak­ing a break from wash­ing cars. Fac­ing page: The chorten at Kalipokhri where we had to turn around be­cause of the rain; snow up in San­dak­phu

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