Maruti Suzuki Trails and Tales, Season 1
For season 1 of Trails and Tales, we take the little Maruti Suzuki Jimny to the Himalayas. But this is no mere sightseeing tour, the Jimny is on a mission. Himalayan winters are extremely unfriendly to the hardest of men, let alone little children. Since its around Christmas time, why not spread the cheer by carrying presents for the little ones? It's time for the Jimny to go to work. Here's how the story unfolded.
Descending to Leh, I could see a sprinkling of snow on the mountain tops of arguably the best visuals in the world from your aircraft window. It appeared to be a day of perfection, no whiteouts in sight, and I hadn't even bothered with my down jacket. Then the doors opened. I took my phone out of airplane mode and the weather app flashed -8 on the home screen. Between transit to the arrival terminal, I put on a neck warmer, a woollen cap, the -20 degree jacket I had recently bought, a good pair of gloves, I even quickly pulled an extra pair of socks on. The bags arrived and we caught our cab to the hotel for a day and a half of acclimatisation. Fifteen minutes in the dry cold air of Leh was enough to scare the crew for the toughest week of our lives. The Himalayas, it seemed, were not here to welcome us with open arms, but to test our mettle in a crucible of icy adversity.
I picked up the Jimny from the local Nexa dealership enroute the cab ride to the hotel. It’s as easily accessible as your local grocery store. No wonder you find so many Marutis in the mountains. I quickly checked air pressures and parked it for the night. It was our last proper meal at the sprawling Abduz hotel in Leh, hot meals cooked with the right spices and in a cosy setting, comforting us before the frozen arms of Ladakh hugged us in a chilling embrace.
10 years of evo
Over the past ten years, we have received so much love from you. We wouldn’t be India’s number one enthusiast magazine if not for your passion, and that’s why we decided to give it back to our community of enthusiasts by embarking on a drive that defines the thrill of driving, but this time, we did it for a good cause. Not only were we on a road trip that very few would dare to take at this time of the year, we were also carrying a very special package in the boot of the Jimny. The plan was to go to Padum, one of the coldest settlements in the world, and spread some Christmas and New year cheer with toys and goodies for children who brave the harshest of climates. We had to pull off this festive mission within a tight timeframe, soon after acclimatising in Leh. It was a bit of a logistical dance, but we were determined to make it happen.
So, the weather forecast wasn't exactly giving us a warm welcome for the next few days. Snowfall threats loomed large, making us question the very routes we needed to take to reach Zanskar valley. Now, when it comes to getting to Padum from Leh, there are two options. The first one, through Kargil, takes its sweet time but is the less stressful drive – or so they say. Of course, in winter, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The second option is not even marked on the map. No prizes for guessing which route we were eyeing.
Make a left before Lamayuru, where the Indus river gives you a frozen farewell, and suddenly you're off the beaten path, leaving the Leh-Srinagar highway behind. Beyond that, it's a dust bowl with a large helping of gravel, flavoured with a pinch of black ice and garnished with a sprinkling of snow. The dish is not to everyone’s taste, but the Jimny chomps on it like a hungry snow leopard. It’s rare even in this part of the country, but you know the purposeful little Maruti means business once you leave the tarmac behind.
Roughing it out
Two tricky mountain passes come along the way - Sirsir La and Singe La, both towering at around 16,000 feet above sea level. While we had acclimated for the altitude, no amount of preparation can fully brace you for the biting cold up there. A few thousand feet of climbing, Sirsir La sets us up for the day ahead as the Jimny kicks up some dust on a trail that seems to be on the road to becoming, well, an actual road, judging by the occasional presence of BRO vehicles along the way. It’s still Jimny territory, allowing me to take shortcuts on the more gently sloping parts of the mountain to make the journey shorter. I take advantage of the opportunity to cut a few corners on the gentler slopes of the mountain, making our journey a bit more efficient. 4H is getting its fair share of action, but I save 4L for the really tricky bits. If I stick to the main trail, it would be good in RWD mode. Sirsir La allows me to play with the Jimny, something I hadn’t done before this drive despite a green Jimny joining our fleet many months ago.
I’d say I was missing out, but then again, driving the Jimny in the Himalayas is exactly what everyone should be doing. It’s in its natural habitat hunting trails and climbing mountains, and I’m beginning to feel that this is my natural habitat as well. The Jimny fits like a glove on trails like these. The windscreen is like a visor on your helmet, the squared bonnet lines visible from the driver’s seat, the compact dimensions suited to the tight winding route and ground clearance and suspension travel suited for worry free driving in the mountains. It’s amazing how much you can push yourself when you don’t worry about breaking your ride. That said, to be extra safe, I was carrying sand ladders, tow ropes, shackles, an air compressor and even an oxygen cylinder. In the mountains, you can’t go less prepared.
So, the road to Sirsir La is quite an interesting one. It's covered in a fine layer of dust over gravel, offering a mix of wide, sweeping corners and narrow, rough sections that keep you on your toes. It's a bit like navigating through a suspenseful movie plot. The agility of the Jimny is tested on the climb but once I get in the flow, I enjoy the unpredictability. It’s like a video game with the tension of the Himalayas. In the tighter sections, I ensure the traction is off, I ensure I gas the Jimny a bit more exiting corners, I’m alert enough to catch the playful slide and I make sure I repeat the exercise again. That 1.5-litre nat-asp Suzuki mill is a lovely little thing in these mountains, never gasping for breath in these rarified conditions. Whenever I need a bit more power, it's there to deliver, making me smile until the traction control kicks in. Maruti Suzuki has set it to engage at speeds over 30 kmph, probably to keep the roads safer. Safety first, right? But hey, a little excitement never hurt anyone!
While the car is breathing easy, so many quick steering movements suck the air out of my lungs as we start climbing to the top of the pass. It hits me how challenging these undulating terrains can be for those of us more accustomed to city life. I decide to ease off the speed and take a moment to appreciate the unfolding landscape.
As I slow down, the beauty of the surroundings becomes more apparent. The textures and colours shaped by the sun and wind on the rugged Himalayan mountains, the semi-frozen rivers weaving through the scenery, and occasional glimpses of wildlife, like a rare sighting of a red fox – it all comes together like a serene tour through an art museum. Nature has its way of creating masterpieces, and sometimes, it's worth slowing down to savour the details.
Colder than your freezer
Crossing dusty Sirsir La was fun and got me well acquainted with the abilities of the Jimny. However, reaching the other side and catching a glimpse of Singe La's snowy tips as the sun set reminded me of the Himalayas' unforgiving nature. Another 16K pass, a fair amount of snow, and the sun fading away – it was clear things were about to get tougher. The surface remained rough, and the temperature displayed on the instrument cluster mocked us with a chilly -12 degrees Celsius. With the wind chill, it felt even colder. As we neared the mountain's peak, we stumbled upon unexpected tarmac stretches. But with the wind picking up and daylight fading, we had to navigate trails along the mountain edges with the frozen Zanskar river as our companion, all under the cover of night, just to make it to Padum in time for our special delivery.
Zanskar valley, usually lush during the summer thanks to the Zanskar river, undergoes a stark winter transformation. A decade ago, during my last visit, it was a lively landscape filled with colours from agriculture in the pleasant summer months. Now, in winter, it's a different story. The rivers barely flow, the air is bone-dry, and I imagine the locals go into a sort of hibernation. Rolling into Padum under the cover of darkness, the streets are empty. We quickly check into the only homestay open this time of year – and it's only open because of us. The walk from the car to the room feels like a marathon, and once inside, we find taps refusing to give us any running water.
Remember, water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius. In Padum, mid-December, you're celebrating if you see a temperature above -10. There's no flowing water, no moisture in the air, and if the solar panels don't soak up enough sunlight to convert to warm water or electricity, life can get quite chilly. I’m eager to leave this frozen town, but not before a quick pit stop.
Ho ho ho
I must confess, this is a first for me – a costume change for evo India. But in this bone-chilling cold, the new red suit is the only thing keeping my spirits up. So, I throw it on, top it off with a glittery golden red cap, and make sure the sparkling white beard is perfectly in place. With a theatrical flourish, I depress the start/stop button on the dashboard. The Jimny takes a moment, then fires up at the first crank – one of the perks of driving a car with a petrol engine. You see, diesel cars wouldn't have the same grace in these temperatures. They'd probably throw a fit, belch out unburnt diesel from the exhaust, and demand a good chunk of your time before allowing you to escape the frustrating idle. The Jimny, on the other hand, feels right at home, even in these harsh conditions.
I roll out of the homestay gates only to find Padum as deserted during the day as it was the night before. The only signs of life are the mountain dogs basking in the spots kissed by the rays of the winter sun.
We veer off the tarmac onto a trail leading to a small settlement. The Jimny effortlessly tackles an icy slope, and we're met with happy faces adorned in festive maroon outfits. It turns out it's Losar, the Ladakhi New Year, just before Christmas, and joy is in the crisp Himalayan air. The kids, wide-eyed at the sight of Santa, beam even brighter as we hand out a bag of gifts. Life is undoubtedly tough for the adults in the Himalayas, and one can only imagine the challenges for the little ones. With schools closed during these months, we figured we'd bring them gifts like sketchbooks and puzzles to keep them engaged in art as they eagerly await the snow to melt and the roads to open up for the more active part of the year.
The cheerful kids decide to treat us to a local dance, and the elders are genuinely surprised we made it to Zanskar, let alone driving all the way to their deserted town. But we weren't. We had the trusty Jimny, our faithful companion across two mountain passes, and we were on a mission to bring smiles to the faces of these remote town's true sub-zero heroes – these resilient children.