Five states, 1,800 km, roaring engines, super new friends. The drive to Leh tests you and your machine. It’s as much about character as stamina.
by Gitumoni Talukdar
Let’s be honest: A trip to Leh is on everyone’s Bucket List.
Thanks to the plethora of travelogues, rider diaries, ad films and movies, this beautiful place with its surreal landscape and hairpin bends is a magnet for adventure-seekers. For people like me who spend every day in the city surrounded by people and more people, the Mahindra Monastery Escape 2016 offered a chance to immerse myself in isolation—albeit with a bunch of like-minded folk. The “expedition,” as we’ve begun to call it, wasn’t exciting just because of the place but also it offered me a chance to test my endurance. Plus, it’s not every day when your boss lets you take two weeks off for a “work” holiday.
The Escape began in Delhi and took us through five states over 14 days, finally culminating to Srinagar before returning to the capital. We were to test Mahindra’s range of SUVs—the Scorpio, the Thar and the XUV 500, while putting them through their paces in some pretty extreme conditions and terrains.
The carmaker’s new generation Scorpio, powered by the mHawk 4 cylinder 2179-cc engine, was our first chariot. The route from Delhi to Manali was fairly simple, but it got tougher as we moved from Manali to Jispa—steep bends, oncoming traffic, lower temperatures. One’s driving and digestive skills were tested as we made our way to Jispa via the Rohtang Pass (at 13,060 ft). For the first 15 km (almost till Keylong), the roads were nonexistent; with constant rain and snow throughout the year, the roads here have patches of slush and require serious manoeuvring. You could feel the engine work harder, but it was up to the task. Plus, the Scorpio’s ground clearance ensured we didn’t really need to worry and that we could keep the momentum.
As we reached Jispa, fatigue began to set in so we broke for the night, and were put up at a pretty lodge that faced the Bhaga river. At 10,500 ft, we spent another day in Jispa to acclimatise to the high altitude, while Vinod Nookala from Mahindra gave us a crash course in off-roading, taking us through water-crossing at the Bhaga river. Despite the decent flow and knee-deep water, his instructions and directives allowed us to pass without major drops. I was a bit nervous, but the Scorpio and other SUVs made little work of it.
The next morning, we drove to Tso Moriri—a 313 km drive through crumbly roads. I’ve driven on treacherous mountain dirt tracks before, but for the first two hours of the drive, I was on the edge of my seat. The road cut through mountains and left little room for error, but a regular clutch-and-brake rhythm eventually took us to Darcha, our first stopover at 11,020 ft.From there, the drive got tougher as the steep ascent to Baralacha La at 16,500 ft once again tested the vehicle and us. The pass has always been a tricky one, with heavy snowfall during the winter. The road isn’t in the best condition, but it offered a challenge that I came to relish. The last few kilometres were even steeper, but we’d gotten into the flow of the mountains and began to enjoy the hairpins and inclines. I missed a couple of beers when I wasn’t at the wheel, but I was assured that they would do more harm than good!
After some deft manoeuvring and expert guidance from the pilot team, we were finally on the 40-km stretch of the More Plains. I had switched to the XUV 500, which allowed us a fair degree of comfort even as the road got tougher. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. It is wallpaper-perfect, and Tso Moriri is everything one can imagine. Thankfully, the Mahindra team had planned a free day in Tso Moriri, which gave us a chance to sit by the lake and marvel at the incredible quiet. We were there, alone. Not a whisper apart from a “Wow!” now and again. For two hours, in silence, we observed the changing colours of the water and the mountains in the backdrop. It was therapeutic, and exactly what the mind and body needed.
After Tso Moriri, our next stop was Pangong Tso, about 210 km away. The Escape was planned to allow you to experience diverse terrains, and Pangong was no exception. Unquestionably an exotic drive that scales up the scenery quotient, it is still very challenging—the road slowly deteriorates after Loma and is almost invisible by the end of it. As the tarmac disappears, tracks are the way forward with stacks of stones all along as guides. On some turns, I was instructed to engage 4-High for increased traction, ensuring I didn’t get stuck in a wheel-spin, throwing rocks around on other vehicles. Again, you almost had to “feel” your vehicle, which is something I had cultivated along the way.
We reached Pangong at 5 pm, our tents pitched barely 100 metres from the iconic Pangong lake. I’ve been to some exceptional places in the North East, but this was a sight like no other. The crisp air was like a lullaby to the senses, and I slept even as I gazed at the stars. Honestly, keeping to my resolution of beer-every-night was difficult. It seems unnecessary, and that’s saying something. The next morning, we drove to Thiskey monastery and visited the local cafés for some hot tea and buns.
Soon enough, it was time for the last leg of our journey: The drive from Pangong to Leh. Since landslides are common on this route, we paced ourselves. But, even with all the planning, we were stuck in a landslide traffic jam that set us back by two hours. After crossing Chang La pass at 17,688 ft—the highest point on the trip—at 2 pm, we started our downward journey. The drive was intense, but we had grown accustomed to consistent braking and changing of gears. Leh was a little different from what I’d imagined, but stunning nonetheless. Through the stone and dust, it offered you a mirror to a time when the Earth was barren, and humans hadn’t yet begun to soil her. Over the next three days, we interacted with the locals, bought souvenirs for the boss—which was the least pleasant part of the journey—and marvelled at how much we, and the Mahindra SUVs, had endured. There was introspection, there was joy and there was some amount of mischief as well.
I loved these few days, but it was soon time to embark on the return journey to Srinagar. As we drove out of Leh, I was struck by the twisted landscape and the way it slowly changed into lush green forests. This was not an easy drive either, but I had moved to the Thar, which combed through the track and road with ease.
I have to say that it is hard to not be affected by a trip to Leh. Apart from the sheer physical demands of the place—from traversing dangerous turns to dealing with Acute Mountain Sickness—it seems to transform you. I feel calmer, I seem to have developed patience for traffic and, in the office, I have a photo from the Escape. Just me, the mountains and a moment of peace. On most days, that’s about all I need.
Photographs by Pawan Sharma.