A drive to Ladakh is always exciting and this time it was even more so as the vehicle we were taking on this 10 day trip was a Mahindra Thar, a very capable mountain goat like the animal it is named after. Of course, we also had 24 other Mahindra SUVs for company – a mix of four-wheel drive Scorpios, XUV500s, a Getaway and a Rexton. That’s like our own little traffic jam all the way from Delhi to Srinagar via Manali and Leh!
Of course, we had everything with us including a doctor and the kitchen sink, in case of any eventuality, as we were part of Mahindra Adventure’s annual Monastery Escape organised by team XSO. Anyone can take part in it by signing up for a fee, and every pair is given a four-wheel drive SUV to take on this trip – something that’s better than taking your own car, and with accommodation and food taken care of.
We checked into Crowne Plaza at Greater Noida and got to meet all the other participants. Of course, the highlight of the evening was meeting our partner for the next 10 days – a shining red Mahindra Thar, kitted out with a winch, a two-way radio set and um… a music system, which really wasn’t needed. Our call sign on the two-way radio was team Media 1 (CarToq &Zigwheels).
We set out bright and early at 4 am. Our destination for the day was Manali at a distance of about 580 km, and which would normally take about 12 hours to reach. However, driving in a convoy has its own challenges and the pace was bound to be slower. Much slower. The drive was fairly uneventful in the plains, but once in the hills after nightfall, it did get strenuous as there were herds of sheep that hampered progress. We finally ended up at Solang Valley Resort at about 9 pm!
Now this is where the Thar really comes into its own. The mountains beckon. Our destination for the day was Jispa, about 150 km away, but involved crossing the mighty Rohtang pass. It’s not that the drive up to Rohtang is extremely tough, but add plenty of tourist traffic and slush and it’s a strenuous experience.
And with a 25-vehicle convoy, it is an adventure! Rohtang now charges Rs. 2,500 per diesel SUV as a “green tax.” It took a while getting past the pass and then we had plenty of photo opportunities beyond that as the traffic thinned out and the vistas open up.
The Thar is fun to drive, especially off-road – we managed to take it down bulldozer tracks in the hillside instead of taking the regular road down to Khoksar, like the rest of the convoy. Fun, with a capital F! The others indulged in a bit of splashing through water crossings for their share of fun. After a lunch break at Sissu, tanking up at Tandi, we were at Padma Lodge, Jispa in the evening – a location we were to spend two days at to acclimatize.
We had an entire day to ourselves at Jispa and engaged in a bit of off-roading in the Bhagariver. The Scorpios and the Thar performed flawlessly, but the all-wheel drive XUV500s had an issue with lower ground clearance (knocking off a couple of engine shields) and lack of a low-ratio 4×4 gearbox, leading to the drivers having to really rev them hard. For the Thar, the entire riverbed was an easy drive in low ratio, as it was for the Scorpios as well, indulging in a bit of fun.
Our destination for the day was Sarchu, not too far from Jispa – only 85 km, but it is significant because of the altitude, at 14,000 plus feet.
This was going to be a test for those with altitude mountain sickness (AMS). En route to Sarchu, we had to drive past the Baralacha La Pass at 16,000 feet.
The roads were fairly decent, except for a bit just after Baralachla where snow melt had washed away the tarmac.
Sarchu has only tented accommodation and we also got brilliant views of the mountains, especially since it was a full moon night.
The next day saw us head off toward Leh. This was going to be a long drive and one that would involve crossing Gata Loops, Nakeela Pass, Lukung La Pass, Morey Plains and Tanglang La before descending to Leh.
This is really where the Thar had an advantage, racing up Gata Loops via the shortcuts in four-wheel drive low, getting to the top nearly 20 minutes before the others, and giving us ample time to click photographs.
Similarly, shortcuts near Nakeela, LukungLa and Morey Plains were tackled with ease. Of course, at Morey Plains it now makes sense to take the brilliant blacktop tarmac as it is faster compared to the gravel across the plains.
Not many stopped at Tanglang La as there were some in the convoy battling AMS symptoms. We drove into Leh in the early evening and checked into Hotel Shambhala.
The convoy split into groups in Leh, with one lot of us heading off to the Pangong Tso lake about 140 km from Leh. Getting there involves crossing Chang La, another of the highest passes in the world, but the roads are terrible. Pangong Tso is as always beautiful, but unfortunately with the crowds of tourists, it is proving to be a challenge keeping its shores clean. We drove a little ahead towards Spangmik for a group photo opportunity and then headed back to Leh.
With another day to kill at Leh, some of us swapped our four-wheel drives for two-wheels. We rented Royal Enfield motorcycles in town and then rode around, visiting Hemis Monastery, Nimmu, the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, Magnetic Hill and GurudwaraPatharSahab. Riding on the excellent black top around Leh is a treat in itself.
We rolled out of Leh, really, really early at 2 am. Our destination was Srinagar, 497 km away and which would take almost the entire day. To keep the convoy awake at that unearthly hour, we indulged in almost non-stop banter over the two-way radios till the break of dawn, when we were near Kargil, our refuelling stop.
We then stopped at Drass at the War Memorial before heading further up to the Zozila Pass and then down to Sonmarg and Srinagar. Zozila is tricky pass, not because of its altitude, but because the mountain side keeps crumbling and the road is really narrow with a steep drop to one side.
Added to that, there were trucks coming up the one-way road (there are two roads on the Srinagar side – one for upcoming traffic and the other for downhill traffic), creating havoc.
We checked into houseboats at Nigeen Lake in Srinagar and spent the day exploring the city and its eateries – we highly recommend a visit to Mughal Gardens and Adhoos restaurant for the Kashmiri wazwan.
That night the peace at Nigeen Lake was broken by a fire on three houseboats on the opposite bank, which kept us all awake for the better part of the night. Sadly, as day broke all that remained of those boats was a few planks floating in the water. And it was time for us to wrap up our adventure as well, catching flights back to Delhi.
Mahindra Adventure has such trips planned all through the calendar year. If you want to be a part of it, just sign up on their site, www.mahindraadventure.com
Disclaimer: CarToq was part of the Monastery Escape at the invitation of Mahindra Adventure