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We took our long-termer Tiguan on a breathtaking journey up in the Himalayas to the point where not many cars have been, the Shingo-La pass
“Baraf pad rahI hai.” And just like that this phone call informing us of the arrival of winter, and the snows, very nearly canned this story.
Our plan was simple enough — find some place we hadn’t been to; somewhere remote, spectacular and challenging. Preferably over a road that had yet to be traced on Google Maps. A couple of calls, some research, and we zeroed in on a trekking path that, on recently assuming strategic importance, had been made... kind of... motorable. Linking the Lahaul and Zanskar valleys of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh, the Shingo-La pass had been used for centuries to bring down goods on the backs of yaks and mules, trading them in for potatoes, rice and the basic necessities for sustenance in one of the most remote, inhospitable and harshest places on earth. A sprinkling of snow would prove to be a bit of a bother. A snow storm means we’re screwed, especially when the guys that headed out on motorcycles a week prior to reconnaissance the route for us had got snowed in. They had yet to return to civilisation and there was no way to connect with what was supposed to be our support crew.
“We’ll figure it out,” said the infuriatingly optimistic editor as he handed me the keys to his long term test Volkswagen Tiguan, promising to catch up in Manali three days later. His logic was that it was too early for the snows to sustain and his old rally buddies up there would sort out any problems for us — conveniently forgetting that they had to walk half way down Baralacha pass before getting rescued when the ’05 Raid got snowed in. Shoot me for not wanting to die somewhere God forsaken.
Anyway, an easy three days drive up from Pune and in Manali his optimism proved to be without foundation. The mountains were all shrouded in heavy clouds, it was biting cold, and all I heard was “Nahin jayega”. I had struck up a conversation with some sturdy men who run a trekking equipment store, telling them about what we were going to attempt, and their straight up reply was, “Nahin Jayega”. It won’t go. He delivered a stern warning about ending up very dead along with something about being morons in the local lingo, and then heaved off to deal with another tourist.
This conversation repeated itself, with more colourful degrees of morbid outcomes. Starvation. Frostbite. A thousand foot drop into a gorge. More death. You get the drift. The mountains were not to be taken lightly. If you came here unprepared, or worse ignorant, you will be punished. The locals know this, they don’t mess around even though it is literally their backyard. Respect the mountains and they respect you back is the general sentiment of those living in the vicinity of one.
That’s not all. The high-altitude passes had been shut for civilians. We had arrived at the end of the tourist season, when the snow starts to fall and continues falling for a good seven months. Tourists were being exhumed like the plague. The passes were already as white as milk and the last of the Army convoys were finishing their supply runs to the remote border outposts. Even the Ladakhis had moved down to Himachal to spend their winters after a bumper harvest of Lahauli potatoes. And here we were, a couple of petrol-sniffing thrill-seekers, who wanted to drive an SUV up one of the passes most locals had barely heard about. I waited for the editor to arrive to deliver news of us turning back for Pune.
“Say hi to Rana,” said editor Sirish, introducing me to the 11-time Raid-de-Himalaya winner. As if I’m so wet behind the years not to have heard of, or met, the king of the mountains. Suresh Rana is India’s winningest Rally Raid driver, a man born and bred in the mountains, the fastest wheelsman in the Himalayas, and the nicest person you could ever meet. He is so nice he got conned by the editor into coming with us to Shingo-La, even though the previous night he emphatically told me we’d get stuck in the snow storms and he had absolutely no intention of getting stranded with us. Heaving a set of snow chains into the Tiguan he buckled up, looked at the low clouds shrouding Rohtang pass, and cracked into a toothy smile. “Rohtang pe barf, aur ladki ki chappal kabhi bhi pad sakti hai.” A warning or just entertaining us, I’m not sure, but likening the snows on Rohtang to the unpredictability of a woman’s temper sent a chill through my bones. I sometimes do wonder if a desk job had been a better life choice.
Sure enough it was snowing on Rohtang when we got there. The checkpost before Rohtang flagged us down — no civilians, remember? — but Rana sorted us out, and they let a Tiguan with MH plates through. We were on our own, though. Generally, when things get really bad, the Army and the BRO swoop in to rescue stranded civilians. The fact that we were heading out after the pass was officially shut meant no such help would be forthcoming if things went south.
Crossing Rohtang La was easier than I anticipated though. You’ve got to slow down and be careful, but if you’re in a capable SUV, it will do the rest. The black ice could catch out the uninitiated but we had a collective 80 years of driving experience in the Tiguan; 25 of those were Rana’s and involved driving these roads at full pelt. ABS, traction control and all-wheel drive were spreading the safety net even wider. We were fine. But we were cold. I was bundled up in multiple layers and looked like a stuffed animal with my cap, gloves and military-grade trekking boots. I spent a lot of time taking photos and updating our social media channels (@evoIndia — go follow!) while cursing myself for not spending the extra `300 on touchscreen-friendly gloves. The rest of the team weren’t doing much better, a symphony of chattering teeth speckled with expletives broke out every time someone rolled down a window. Meanwhile, Rana was behaving like it was the start of the Delhi winter and there was a slight nip in the air — a light jacket and a smirk at our plight was what he had on.
We descended from Rohtang to some more grim news. The villagers at Koksar that fed us a piping hot meal of meat-chawal, much welcome after the bone-chilling cold of Rohtang, were packing up and heading south. The weather wouldn’t hold, they said; the snow would come in and they had no intention of getting stuck on the wrong side of Rohtang. Rana seemed unperturbed though, or maybe the editor was keeping him distracted with all the rally gossip. So we headed onwards to Keylong, the administrative centre of this region, and next day started off before dawn. We had the Tiguan loaded up with supplies: Rana’s solitary sleeping bag, survival rations, double checked the snow chains and stocked up on water. We had a 50km drive to the start of the climb – 30km to Darcha on the Manali-Leh highway, where we hung a left and drove another 20km down a narrow road to Zanskar Sumdo, the last bit of civilisation before the climb would begin.
The Shingo La pass is steeped in mystery. For centuries, it has been a walking path that connected the Lahaul valley in Himachal to the Zanksar valley in Ladakh. Legend has it that the prospectors who dug up the first sapphires in Zanskar in the late 1800s, walked up this route hoping to make it to Shimla alive and get rich by selling the gems. This route has remained a walking path and trekking route since, until the Army decided it needed a faster way in to the Zanskar valley and got the Border Road Organisation to find a way through. But the road (if you can even call it that) is a far cry from the fabulous stretch of tarmac that the Manali-Leh highway has become. The BRO had blasted through the granite and cleared a path at the base, but that’s about it. We drove past Zanskar Sumdo and first the tarmac disappeared, then the dusty trail turned into loose rocks, and then into boulders that the Tiguan had to climb over.
Hairpins. Spectacular fun when they’re perfectly surfaced and you’re attacking them in a sportscar. A different, masochistic sort of fun when you’ve got boulders the size of hatchbacks lying around and you’re trying to thread a crawling SUV through them. All 20 years of the Ed’s driving experience were called to the fore as he guided the Tiguan up this petrological minefield. We had shifted the Tiguan into Off Road mode, so the drivetrain was primed to deal with the lack of traction and could bring its A-game. Rana was playing spotter, using his experience to find the best line on the trail that contorted itself up the mountainside. Progress was painfully slow. I could have walked faster, but I liked the heated cabin much better.
The trail was giving us a hard time, and the weather was adding to our woes. The sky was a clear blue and though the blinding sun beat down, the mercury dipped below zero and the wind tore at our clothes. My nose, the only bit of skin I dared leave exposed, had tuned a bright pink courtesy the mild sunburn and the cold. Even Rana pulled a buff over his head, as the buffeting wind grew stronger. We must have climbed 3km in a good half hour, after which the trail’s gradient eased out. We thought we were done with the worst of it and spirits lifted, only to come around a bend and find snow as far as the eye could see. Brilliant.
A concerned Rana walked out ahead to see how deep the snow was. He stomped at the ground, walked further ahead and stomped some more. And then he waved us forward. Now in snow mode, the Tiguan crawled ahead, the DSG upshifting early to reduce the torque going to the wheels and thus reducing the chances of wheelspin. With remarkably little effort the Tiguan kept climbing, the altitude and the lack of oxygen not making an appreciable difference to the power output, we only have to keep an eye out to ensure the rocks don’t gouge out the underside. At some point, the temperature gauge of the Tiguan skyrocketed. Shit, not here, not now. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We hadn’t seen a single person since we started the climb hours ago. Help wasn’t coming.
I stepped out into the cold to inspect the car and discovered ice had built up in front of the bumper covering the radiator intakes. Phew. Dislodging the ice with a wrench the temperature returned to normal, but this just reminded me of the gravity of what we were attempting, and how everything needed to go perfectly.How much further, I asked Rana, exhausted. We had climbed up so high that oxygen was scarce and the incident with the radiator left me panting. The longer we were on this mountain, the more we were temping fate. My head was hurting and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Apparently the body goes into sleep mode when there’s very little oxygen, a sort of biological limp home mode. Not far, he replied. And sure enough, a couple of bends later we spotted a sign-board with Tibetan prayer flags tied to it fluttering in the wind. ‘Shinkhu La, ALT-16,580ft’, it said. This was it. We had made it!
We didn’t spend too long at the top. We couldn’t. The wind was gale-level strong, and I swear I felt the onset of frostbite through my gloves. The air was thin, and not wanting to risk altitude sickness, we took the mandatory photographs and then huddled to decide what to do. The editor wanted to descend to the other side, go to Padum and come back up the next day. Rana was done tempting fate. Maybe the cold had frozen his facial muscles but he was no longer smiling. If it snows tomorrow he said, that’s it, we’re here for the winter. And so, with the editor’s optimism tempered, we headed back to Keylong.
I don’t want to sound smug, but there was no denying the sense of achievement that I felt on seeing that board. Nearly every single person we had spoken to had said it couldn’t be done. That Shingo-La was insurmountable. Well, here it is, munching baraf under the Volkswagen Tiguan’s tyre treads we made it happen. I made a mental note to visit a particular trekking equipment shop in Manali. But first, there was the small task of getting back down.
Watch the full video of our adventure to Shingo La below!