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Driving to the roof of the world

There are moments in life when the need to put the thrills and the beauty encountered into words is almost overbearing but leh-trip-01impossible, leaving us speechless. This is what we experienced on our journey that took us from Delhi to the ultimate Shangri-La, Leh in 2008. FullThrottle team gets a firsthand experience of the thrills and challenges of a 9-day adventure drive from Delhi to the world’s highest motorable mountain pass, Khardung La at 18380 ft and back in a 4×4 vehicle.

By Raj Saikia & Ashok Majumdar

Day One

It was the 2nd of August and dawn had just broken over the horizon when I landed with my rucksack at Inter State Bus Terminal, Kashmiri Gate, Delhi, which was the pick-up point Ashok had set. For the next one hour I flagged down every Ford Endeavour that came into view hoping that it would be Ashok’s, but only ended up making a fool of myself. And just as I had given up hope, stranded, sweaty and frustrated, a shining black Endeavour glided into view and came to a screeching halt beside me. Ashok had finally shown-up and our adventure was about to begin, finally.

The 233km distance from Delhi to Chandigarh was covered in five and half hours, with pedal being put to metal. Frequentleh-trip-03 glances at the speedometer showed that we were driving at speeds in excess of 130kmph. The 4 Wheel Drive 2.5 liter Ford Endeavour XLT is a superb performer on highways and compliments the decent power at its disposal with impeccable acceleration, handling and stability.

After lunch at Chandigarh we got lost in the maze of roundabouts that this incredibly planned city has until a very amiable Sardarji in a not so amiable sounding scooter was kind enough to show us the way out of town. The country side in Punjab is immensely endearing with green vistas of paddy and sugarcane fields and canals carrying unbelievable emerald green water. We stopped at a typical Punjabi Dhaba for tea that was a tad too sweet for my taste buds but Ashok loved it and went on to devour another two cups (he on an average consumes 12 cups of tea in a day).

After Ropar and upon entering Himachal Pradesh, the smooth highway roads give way to snaking and curvy mountainous roads
which bring to light the body roll in the Endeavour. Driving through the 2.8km Pandoh Dam tunnel was quite an experience and one can’t help feeling a sense of awe at the workmanship of the men who made the tunnel. It was in the evening that we reached our hotel in Manali. Hotel Rohtang Manalsu is a Himachal Tourism establishment located at Hadimba temple road which has seen better days. It is a decent hotel though with decent rooms and friendly staff and quite reasonable as well. It is here that we met Dharmesh Sharma, who was to be our driver cum guide for the remainder of the trip (we had booked a driver in advance to join us at Manali). After a hearty meal we called it a night but neither of us could sleep. The thought of what was to come the next day kept us awake till early in the morning.

Day Two

Day two brought hopes of great excitement for us. This was the beginning of the real adventure. By 6 we had tanked up the Endeavour and were on the road headed for Keylong which is a small and picturesque town nestled at a height of 11,000 feet in the Himalayas. The 115 km drive from Manali to Keylong is simply breathtaking with gargantuan snow covered peaks that intimidate one and all that ply on the road. The roads are your typical mountainous roads, broken and messy, and the car simply loved it.

The Endeavour made mincemeat of the terrain but there was quite a bit of jolting in the rear seats, and I could see our driver Sharmaji’s head constantly hitting the roof, his expression told me that he was not very amused. We stopped at Raninala glacier point which is a mass of thick snow gathered besides the road. Having sent me to stand on the glacier and pose Ashok got cracking with his camera. Raninala glacier was brimming with noisy honeymooners who were acting as if they had just conquered Mount Everest. The sooner we got out of there the better we thought.

The road gets really bad on the climb to Rohtang pass which is a high mountain pass that connects Kullu valley with Lahual andleh-trip-04 Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh. At a height of 13,051 feet, it is at Rohtang pass that we have our first tryst with bouts of breathlessness and giddiness. But that did not stop me from climbing atop a yak that quite frankly didn’t seem to be very delighted at having to bear my weight, all of 70kgs.

The next stop after Rohtang pass was at Sissu glacier waterfalls. This was a sight to behold. It looked almost as if god himself was pouring milk out of his hands. After taking in the beauty of Sissu waterfalls we were suddenly hungry and halted at Koksar village for a nice lunch which comprised of rice, mutton curry and a local dish named Siru which I had no idea what it was, but it tasted great nevertheless. It was at the Dhaba at Koksar that Ashok forgot to pick up his SLR camera along with a plethora of lenses and it was only after driving a good 10 kilometers did we realise that it was missing.

We took a u turn and headed back for the Dhaba. Ashok drove like a maniac. The upside to this crazy driving was that we covered
the 10kms to the Dhaba in no time, and you should have seen the expression in Ashok’s face when the dhabawalla returned him the camera. If Ashok was the President of India he would have awarded the ‘Bharat Ratna’ to that dhabawalla right there and then. On a serious note, we will forever be indebted to that nameless dhabawalla, for he saved our journey of a lifetime from becoming a total disaster as that would have been the end of this photo-feature by the Full Throttle Adventure Drive team.

Tandi is a small village situated at a height of 8442 feet above sea level and is regarded as one of the most sacred places in the valley of Lahaul. Located just 8 km ahead of Keylong, the river Chandra unites with Bhaga at Tandi and becomes the Chandrabhaga. Tandi is also home to the lone gas station on the Manali-Leh highway, the next being after 365kms at Leh. After tanking up, we calculated the mileage the Endeavour was delivering to beat 7.48kmpl, but that was with the AC on and on the climb, so it wasn’t too bad. If you miss this petrol pump, which is at half-way, you could be in trouble, if you have a guzzler.

Camp Drilbu resort located a mere kilometer from the gas station is a stupendous resort perched on a hill overlooking theleh-trip-05 Chandrabhaga river and the highway. It is here that we stopped for a chai break. The camp was hustling with activity as a Korean tour group led by a rather beautiful Korean tour guide had just docked. We would have loved to spend the night at the camp (not because of the Korean tour guide but because of the beauty of the place) but there was a room already awaiting us at Hotel Chandrabhaga, just a few kilometers down the road at Keylong.

When we reached our hotel at Keylong twenty minutes later, the sun was playing a game of hide and seek, the birds were singing and a cool breeze was blowing. There was both magic and romance in the air. Hotel Chandrabhaga offers a majestic view of four snow capped peaks and of the Kardang monastery. Although there was no electricity at the hotel, we enjoyed every moment of our stay there. The staff was so friendly that it almost felt like home. The rooms were rather huge, the toilets clean and the furniture quite neatly laid out for the price.

Day Three

Day three got off to a rather slow start. Ashok was down with a headache and by the time he had dispelled it with the aid of five cups of tea and two sinister looking pills it was way past 8. The road from Keylong to Sarchu where we would halt for the night was something right out of an adventure storyteller’s book. It takes one over Baralachala Pass situated at a height of 15,750 feet. Driving through these narrow and treacherous roads is an experience. The roads are so narrow that on many an occasion we had to back-up for traffic (especially army convoys) coming from the opposite direction to pass. The Endeavour performed admirably in these inhospitable terrains, but there were times when you wished that there was a bigger engine with more horsepower under the hood.

At Patseo we stopped at Deepak Tal whose water was so blue and crystal clear that you could see yourself in it. I dared to stepleh-trip-06 into the water and my legs went numb almost instantaneously. Two German bikers coolly undressed and jumped into the lake, and one even began to hum a tune and shampoo his head as if he had been taking showers in near frozen lakes, 12,000 feet above sea level all his life.

The snaking and long winding roads, the massive peaks staring down at you, the glorious cascading waterfalls and the glaciers conspire to make a scenery that is simply out of this world. If there is a heaven then I am quite certain it would look like this.

The road from Patseo onwards is quite dusty and rugged and the ride gets really bumpy. The SUV suddenly transforms into a pogo stick. And then came Gemur glacier and suddenly the unpleasantness of the bumpy ride and the involuntary jumping around inside the car seemed absolutely worthwhile to say the least. Here we were, standing with our hands rested on our hips and shaking our heads incredulously at the stupefying beauty of the glacier. Gemur glacier is another one of those sights that make you stand and gape in awe at god’s craftsmanship. Ashok zoomed the lenses of his SLR to the limit and captured some stunning images of the top the glacier, wherein the frozen ice were contoured in the form of tombstones. Surreal as the scene was, there was also a hint of morbidness to it, you couldn’t help but draw resemblance with an icy graveyard.leh-trip-07

Lunch station was at Bharati’s Dhaba at Bharatpur. Bharati turned out to be an amiable women with rosy pink cheeks who was bad at math (it took her ten minutes to calculate our bill with the help of Sharmaji ). Lunch was followed by a quick nap at the Dhaba which was more like a tent fully kitted with mattresses and blankets which we found too hard to resist. What was to be a quick nap turned into a proper afternoon siesta and if Sharmaji had not woken us up we never would have got to Sarchu that day.

During the drive from Bharatpur to Sarchu we were left flabbergasted at the dramatic beauty of the jagged and barren mountains that took astounding shapes and sizes. The land was so barren that it almost resembled a desert at some places.  The mountains looked like they were made of loose earth and as if coming off. They were an interesting play of light brown hues with not a single blade of grass on them. Sharmaji who doubled up as our guide informed us that they were mud-mountains that could not withstand rain and would collapse in the event of heavy rainfall.

We reach Baralacha La, which means the big pass at an altitude of 16500 ft. Both the Chandra and Bagha originate from here toleh-trip-08 become Chandrabhaga at Tandi that gets renamed as Chenab in J&K. A sign-board ominously tells you, “You are about to descend. Check your brakes now.”

We take one last look at the awesome scene of the myriad stones piled up one on top of another on our left in great numbers and start descending.  We realize we are entering a land very few have witnessed. The road snakes around the mountains on one side and the river on the other-and this is no mean river. The banks seem to have been carved out with a giant knife leaving a deep gorge-like feeling. This was certainly our version of The Grand Canyon.

Located at 14,075 feet above sea level, Sarchu is an immense lybeautiful valley nestled in between Baralacha La to the south and
Lachulung La to the north. This is a favored spot among tourists for anovernight stop and there are a host of camps to choose from. We put up at Camp Rashpian whose manager Mr. Ajay Kapoor greeted us with much warmth. It was cold at Sarchu that leh-trip-09night and the wind was blowing gung-ho. We were in the valley of the gods surrounded by breathtaking peaks, and I remember asking myself, ‘where am I’? Is this heaven’? When the lights went out at 10, the whole camp was shrouded in pitch darkness. The wind was blowing real hard and gushing against the tent with all its might. There was not a sound to be heard anywhere except for the sound of the wind, it was eerie and yet so fantastic. It was so fantastic and ultimately so eerie that neither I nor Ashok slept that night.

Day Four

It was drizzling at Sarchu when we got out of our tents the next morning. Our driver said we should be on our way as it might snow at Taglang La pass which would block the roads. After a few steaming cups of tea, breakfast and not to mention pills for headache, pills for nausea and pills for indigestion we hit the road. Today we would be reaching Leh, a journey of 248kms that would be covered in 8 hours. The roads here were atrocious and we had to take numerous diversions. At Lachlung La we decided to test the off-roading worthiness of the Endeavour and got off the roads onto hurriedly prepared 4 into 4 trails that crisscrossleh-trip-10 the mountains. Slipping the Endeavour into low range 4 wheel drive mode, we effortlessly climbed the steep muddy and slimy hills until we would hit the main road and then repeat the process. We drove over high mountainous grasslands, streams and immensely steep hills spilled with sharp stones that could have done great harm to the undercarriage of the car. The Endeavour skidded sideways and backwards all the while moving steadily up, just as an ice-skater doing her routine workout. This is what we call ‘pure offroading’ and the thrill of that experience hasn’t left us till today.

The climb to Taglang La pass consists of a series of loops, 21 in total. Driving through these hairpin bends is a task and it is always helpful to have a navigator to watch out for traffic coming from the opposite direction. On one of the loops out of the 21 is a small shrine made of a plastic tarpaulin and bricks dedicated to the memory of Biddi Baba, a truck handyman who perished at the same spot a few years ago. Legend has it that Biddi Baba still visits the place at night and aids any truck or vehicle stranded in the vicinity. We paid our respects to Biddi Baba, whom the mountains devoured.

A strange phenomenon occurred while on the climb to Taglang La. There was a sudden loss of power. Ashok checked the gradient, which was not steep either. Why was the car not pulling then, Ashok enquired, revving up the engine? We noticed the engine amber light on the dashboard glowing ominously. I have never noticed that before, said Ashok. Black fumes started leh-trip-11emitting from the exhaust. We thought something was seriously wrong. The idea of our car breaking down at 16500ft above sea level and 175 kilometers from the nearest town, Leh, quite frankly did not thrill us. I was sure nothing could be wrong as I flipped the pages of the car’s manual furiously to know more about the amber light. “Ashok, as per Ford’s manual, there’s a problem with the exhaust system”, I said. What kind of problem, Ashok asked agitatedly. The manual doesn’t say much, I replied. Meanwhile, Sharmaji, who was quite all this while, broke the silence in the cabin and said in an assuring tone, “nothing’s wrong, it will be fine in a while as we start descending.” We were later to learn that the black fumes were unburned carbon, which usually happened when a car ran out of oxygen at extreme heights, resulting in a severe drop in engine performance. This phenomenon soon became a regular feature during the trip, whenever we reached a pass.

The landscape before reaching Taglang La is rather dramatic and unlike any one might have seen. Flanking the road on by both sides were rocks of gigantic proportions which over the course of time by some strange occurrence had taken the shape of dilapidated sand forts, with thin jagged and pointed peaks that reached out into the azure sky. The whole scene conjured up images of desert forts that were once gran-diose but now lying in ruins.

Taglang La on an elevation of 17,582 ft, the second highest motorable mountain pass in India, wasfreezing cold and windy that day. It was so windy that on one occasion I came perilously close to being blown away by the wind, and I weigh a good 70kgs. Ashok had to grab me from being blown over the edge of the mountain. That would have meant a shrine dedicated to me.

At Pang Ashok hands over the reign or rather the steering wheel of the Endeavour to our driver Sharmaji who until now was a mere passenger and assumes the duty of a full-time travel photographer. Ashok had for the past three days been doubling up as a part time photographer and a part time driver. He would intermitantly poke his head and some time the body up to the torso out of the SUV to capture some of the most scenic beauties of Leh.

A few miles out of Pang we go offroading yet again, this time over a dry river bed at the edge of which stood a mountain of green leh-trip-12and brown partly covered in a sea of mist. It was like driving on the highway to heaven, seldom have I seen such a spectacular landscape. This surely had to be the place where god himself resided. As we neared Leh the heavens opened up and the green mountains gave way to stark ravines. The roads here were simply fantastic, bordered by overhanging cliffs to one side and a flowing river on the other side. We drive through tiny villages, Bedouin like camps and flowing streams. At a small town called Upshi, we stop to pay a mandatory tax of Rupees 70 to the local government. Leh was just 35kms from here, after four days on the road, we were almost there. The closer we get to Leh the starker the terrain turns into. If the Russian spacecraft Luna 9 had landed here by mistake in 1966 instead of the moon, the astronauts I am sure would have still thought that they hand landed on the moon. Such is the terrain. But the surprising thing was that there were flashes of greenery here and there, a very bizarre landscape indeed. Leh itself is a quaint city, and yet immensely beautiful. Surrounded by hills, much of the city’s landscape is dominated by the Leh palace which now stands in ruins. We drive through the hustling and bustling Mall road towards Fort road where our Hotel was situated. I noticed that more foreigners can be seen in Leh than Indians. For a brief second, I felt like an outsider in my own country. After checking into our room at Hotel City Palace, I took a quick shower and was ready for a walk in the town. Ashok decided to rest; he was a bit tired driving most of the way. The markets in Leh have a lot to offer in terms of Tibetan artifacts, antiques, Kashmiri carpets, wall paintings and pashmeena shawls. I had never window shopped so much in my life. Jaded and hungry, I make my way to a Tibetan restaurant and ordered the special menu of the day, trout fish with mashed potatoes, French fries, salad and beer. We had made it; we had traveled over 1100 kilometers in four days, over killer mountain roads of surreal beauty, and landscape that only god could have created. We were finally in Leh.

I didn’t know that dreams do come true. For long I had dreamt of a road trip to Leh, of traversing the treacherous and ethereal mountain roads of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, and of driving through the clouds into the Kingdom of Heaven; although knowing deep in my heart that it was never to come true. But come true it did and that too with a bang. I can never thank Ashok enough for inviting me to join him on the journey of a lifetime, a road trip from Delhi to Leh.

Ashok MajumdarAshok Majumdar, a marketer by profession and a journalist by training, created Sales Rambo, a sales & marketing CRM on cloud for SMEs. He founded Abhiyan Marketing Services (P) Ltd., a creative hot shop & co-founded Ebony & Ivory, an advertising agency accredited  with the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). He started his career with The Times of India and worked for 6 years before venturing out on his own.  


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