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It’s the beginning of November. The pleasant weather that used to signal the onset of winter in the north of India used to be a happy time. Festivities, good weather, good food, a change in fashion and more time out in the sun with hot cups of tea for company… those were the good old days. But today, if you’re anywhere in the Delhi NCR region, Punjab or Haryana, the winter begins with researching and purchasing gas masks, air purifiers and, if you really can’t bear it, a vacation away from the polluted mess the north has become. ‘Winter is Coming’ is a thing!
Delhi is like a magnet for this foul air. When the farmers in Punjab burn their fields it all comes to the capital and even at 11 in the morning the sun feels like a zero watt bulb you use in your night lamp. Thankfully I’m sitting high enough and the headlights of the Hexa are strong enough to navigate through traffic on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway. The thick smog doesn’t lift till it’s well past noon and I’m totally on edge by now. An early morning flight to Delhi from Pune ensured no sleep through the night and a nine-hour drive to Kufri was turning out to be twelve in the smog. And the adventure hadn’t even begun.
This month’s adventure involved a lesser known mountain pass called Magru Gala. Gala means pass in Mandi dialect and could well translate to Magru Pass here. It is somewhere near the Janjehli valley, a valley widely regarded as paradise in the Mandi district, and Magru Gala is the challenging drive on the other side of the mountain that gets you to Janjehli.
There’s a strange connection between beauty and risk and that connection is called adventure. As children we are prodded to gain a broader understanding of the world, open up our minds to all kinds of possibilities, dream freely and think big. Somewhere along the way though the kid grows up and those thoughts of flight and freedom are clouded by a mundane machined life that isn’t really worth living. We breathe in polluted air and breathe out a crappy life. You can’t control the world dictating terms to you, but what you feel is totally different. What you feel is that inner voice guiding you to seek happiness over money, experiences over wealth, and life over a long and slow death by particulate matter. That voice is always adventurous. It’s the child in you, banking on the skills you’ve learnt over the years to push yourself further, and to experience a new adventure. That voice leads you to jumping from a plane with your parachute, climbing up a snow-capped peak, or driving to a place crazy enough to give you moments of exhilaration that balance out the boring days in your life. The drive to and past Magru Gala are those moments of exhilaration.
To balance out the boring days in my life and in search of beauty that only the Himalayas can deliver, we had endured a drive through smog-filled roads to get on to the beautiful Himalayan expressway. Kufri was now a few hours away where we would finally reach a couple of hours past sundown and gear up for the next day. The drive from Kufri to Janjehli valley is about 125km. It is just a few hours drive from Mandi, a single day visit for many. From Shimla or Narkanda, Janjehli is only accessible through Magru Gala, a road most would rather avoid. About 75km of the stretch from Kufri is beautifully laid tarmac, twisting and turning like a satin robe on a voluptuous body. The Tata Hexa’s dynamic mode makes the VARICOR 400 eager enough to enjoy these roads. For such a big car, the body control is quite good, and if you drive in auto mode, the usually rear-driven Hexa sends its power to the front wheels every time it detects loss in traction. While this may suit an off-roader, on winding roads, all four driven wheels give you a lot more grip and help maintain a higher speed through corners. We drive past Narkanda, reach a village called Kingal and soon after, a hard left takes us to the start of an adventure so crazy, these beautiful pictures just can’t convey the breadth of it. The road narrows to a single lane that you pray you won’t be sharing with oncoming traffic as you skirt the Sutlej river, then comes a bridge to cross over and on the other side, it rises quickly and narrows ever further.
This road takes you to Mandi from the least accessible side of the mountains and is one of those places that gets no attention as it’s not much of a thoroughfare nor is it a tourist destination. It’s narrow, has sheer drops to your left and sharp rocky mountainside on your right. Every second turn is a blind corner. Two hours of nerve-wracking driving later comes Chhattri, a small village from where the climb to Magru Gala commences. In those two hours, there’s barely a straight to take a breather and you think that you’ve been on the road forever but it’s just about 45km since Kingal. You think the worst is over, and then the tarmac ends.
Now on most days, I’d hate that, but the Hexa has proved to excel in such conditions. When there is no road, the cars, bikes and buses usually stop so I was looking forward to no traffic. From Chhattri, a dusty rocky road begins to climb steeply and the temperature falls as quickly. We were in the beginning of November in the middle of the day and the instrument cluster indicated a 6-degree Celsius reading. The fine dust makes it easy to lose traction and so I stick the Hexa into the excellent Rough Road mode. The additional bottom-end torque in first and second gears in Rough Road mode makes the steep climb easier. The all-wheel drive traction keeps it safe and planted. Thankfully the trail is much wider than the road to Chhattri and jagged cliffs were left behind to mountain slopes lined with towering deodar and pine trees. The mountain changes its colour due to the thick forestation and to an extent changes the nature of the drive. It’s safer up here as you can see the trail ahead from a distance, there are fewer surprises and as long as you are on the gas, the car will climb effortlessly here.
Magru Gala is 2285 metres above sea level, which isn’t as high as many other Himachal or J&K passes, but most mountain roads these days are getting a smooth coat of tarmac. Passes like Tanglang La or even Rohtang aren’t the challenge they used to be. Tourists hire vans to go to the top of the mountain to click selfies like it is Mahableshwar. In such times of touristy corruption of the most beautiful places in our country, such a stunning and challenging mountain pass so close to Shimla is rare and should be treasured. The pass has hairpins, long sweeping corners, a few blind turns, steep climbs and short bridges over streams of water. What it doesn’t have is traffic. You can stop at many places to soak in the view, spend some time up there to brew up a cup of tea if you are carrying supplies and enjoy this rare high altitude pass in solitude.
The surface up and down this mountain pass is a mix of dust and stones. They aren’t too sharp or large to worry about the tyres, but the steep incline requires you to stay on the power more than you usually would when there are so many stones on the surface. The Hexa suspension here does well to help us maintain a steady pace over the rough surface. Since the damping is well sorted it does not bounce around as much as most SUVs would over such a surface. Lesser pitch in such conditions ensure the sump guard isn’t getting hammered and because the body stays in control, climbing up Magru Gala is fairly simple.
It’s early evening when we make it to the other side of the mountain and begin to descend on Janjehli valley. The landscape opens up to a beautiful bowl between a set of mountains, a stream flowing through the town and stepped plantations farmed by people who are sure to be living in a very happy place, Janjehli truly is paradise. This would be a tourist hotspot if not for the drive to get here. The Hexa made the drive easy for us but it by no means was a walk in the park. Maybe we’re too used to pushing the SUV, going places we never thought we’d get to in a Hexa and maybe the treacherous roads for some are not as tough for us now. It’s a tough SUV when it takes a beating without letting you know of it. It’s always prepared for the next adventure and I am too.