High on altitude with Volkswagen Experiences

Volkswagen Experiences is for customers, fans of the brand, and anyone who wants to experience these cars
Our ride for the Volkswagen Experiences was Taigun GT Plus Sport
Our ride for the Volkswagen Experiences was Taigun GT Plus SportRohit Mane

For a driving enthusiast, there are few greater achievements than driving through uncharted territory on your own. I am back again, this time for Volkswagen’s new initiative, Volkswagen Experiences or VWe for short, also pronounced as 'We'. As a Volkswagen customer or fan, you can purchase these self-drive expeditions led by an experienced crew. This experience gives fans of the brand a chance to drive different VW cars to the most aspirational destinations in India, with the comfort of a convoy and all possible help required. For their first edition, they picked the magical land of Ladakh.

Flagging off the Volkswagen Experiences convoy
Flagging off the Volkswagen Experiences convoyVolkswagen India

The adventure of a lifetime

“I am sure this is guaranteed to be the best trip of my life, my most awaited trip to Ladakh, in my favourite car. We own four VWs and I am sure we are going to love them all our lives,” said Mohini Chawla, who drove to Ladakh for the first time. “We are very excited, I personally am, I am looking forward to this, this is an adventure which probably I would have wanted to do a long time back and this is an opportunity I think I am going to really enjoy,” said Anand Damle. Most of the participants were first-timers to this region and their excitement was soaring.

VWe is focused around the customer and they were the first to get behind the wheel. They started from Chandigarh and their first stop was Manali, which was a breeze considering most of the new roads in Himachal are now four-lane highways. The journey from Manali to Leh though was going to be a totally different ball game altogether. From Gata loops all the way to the More plains, the roads are under construction and very dusty. To add to the challenge, this route involves crossing four high-altitude passes – the snow-covered Baralacha La, the narrow Nakee La, the mostly broken roads on Lachung La, and the drop-dead gorgeous Tanglang La. But the beauty of these arrive-and-drive programmes is you don’t have to worry about anything. The cars were well-stocked with snacks, basic requirements like tissues and sanitisers and most importantly, water. Lead and sweep cars ensured that the convoy stayed together and everyone drove at a comfortable pace, and enjoyed the drive. The cars themselves crossed all the difficult terrain with ease. Once in Leh, the participants got to experience the local culture, cuisine and bask in the beauty of this high-altitude desert state. 

Crossing each pass was a celebration
Crossing each pass was a celebrationVolkswagen India

Apart from being a novel experience for them, it was a humbling one. The landscape our country offers in this region always stuns you, irrespective of the number of times you've been here. Nature wasn’t the only mesmerising aspect for the participants. “I think you guys have exceeded my expectations because there are cars ahead and behind us, there are refreshments in the car, there is an ambulance and there is one assistance vehicle also plus the way logistics and F&B are being handled, it's amazing,” said Ashutosh Gupta who was very impressed by the planning. “Oh it was wonderful, I mean everything was so responsive and the gearbox was so intelligent. I was driving a 1.5 GT DSG model, the gearbox was really very intelligent, I just did not feel as if there was any lag at any point of time,” said Rahul Debuka, who couldn’t stop admiring the cars.

Customers relaxing by the river-side
Customers relaxing by the river-sideVolkswagen Experiences

Pushing the limits

We joined the VWe in Leh, taking over from the customers and becoming the first media group to visit the Siachen Base Camp. I was driving a Taigun GT Plus Sport, and spent a day or two exploring Leh, and acclimatising to the high altitude. At an altitude of 11,500 feet (3500 metres), the air density and oxygen availability affect both car performance and personal judgement, making acclimatisation essential. Despite ever-improving roads, many areas still present difficult terrain, and I was curious how the 1.5-litre turbocharged engine and 7-speed DSG gearbox, which provides ample power on plains, would fare in the high altitudes.

The next morning, our convoy set off early for Nubra, crossing the Khardung La pass, still touted by many motorists as the ‘top of the world’. The climb to Khardung La was rough but entertaining. Driving in a convoy fosters camaraderie, with constant walkie-talkie communications ranging from essential traffic details to light-hearted banter. “There’s a modified Gypsy trying to overtake, please give him way, he has already displayed that he is from Haryana.” *Chuckles*. Every time I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I couldn’t help but think, “What a smart-looking convoy of cars.” Seeing them navigate tough terrain was a delightful sight, a testament to VW’s elegant design language.

Kicking up some dust in a Taigun
Kicking up some dust in a TaigunVolkswagen India

As roads turned to loose sand, gravel, and potholes, I switched off the traction control to prevent the ESP from cutting power when needed. Engines lose about 3 per cent power per 1000 feet of altitude gain, but the Taigun GT Plus Sport’s turbocharged engine packed enough grunt to take me past the Khardung La peak with ease.

We soon arrived at our luxurious camp in Nubra. After lunch, we headed to the Siachen Base Camp, opened to tourists about a year ago. The military area remains off-limits, but the drive to Siachen was smooth and the views breathtaking. The road hugged the mountains, passing through villages, with mountains on both sides and a long road ahead disappearing into the horizon.

Volkswagen convoy was an elegant sight in these terrains
Volkswagen convoy was an elegant sight in these terrainsVolkswagen India

Siachen is a 76km long glacier, the longest in the Karakoram range and the second longest in the world outside the non-polar regions. Militarily, controlling this glacier is of high strategic importance as it offers a vantage point to monitor our hostile neighbours. Ironically, more lives have been claimed by the harsh weather than by bullets. Since 1987, a ceasefire has prevented any bullets from being fired here, yet over 2000 soldiers have lost their lives. At the higher reaches of the glacier, temperatures drop to -60 degrees, blizzards blow at speeds up to 300kmph, and oxygen levels are barely 10 per cent of what we have in the plains. The Siachen war memorial lists the names of the 947 Indian soldiers who died from 1984 to 1987 when the fight for control was on.

Prashant catching a breather in Nubra
Prashant catching a breather in NubraVolkswagen India

It was hard not to feel overwhelmed standing there, thinking about the significance of this place. Border areas with neighbouring countries were just 25km to my left, 45km to my right, and the Siachen glacier visibly towering on the other side. A place so breathtakingly beautiful yet so lifeless and hostile.

The cars that brought us here were at much more ease. Despite altitudinal power loss, they seemed unbothered by the terrain. VW’s head of Product and Volume planning had mentioned the robust design process to me over lunch, and it showed. Even on challenging surfaces, the cars felt solid, cabins comfortable, steering precise, and power readily available. I was glad VW had started Volkswagen Experiences, allowing more people to experience these cars beyond a typical test drive. And while experiencing the cars, you get an amazing adventure.

Volkswagen convoy going through the serenity of Ladakh
Volkswagen convoy going through the serenity of LadakhVolkswagen India

My adventure didn’t end there. The following day I was to part ways with the convoy and head out on my own journey to scale the Shinkhu La pass, connecting Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar in Ladakh. And it was exciting, as I would have to battle time and weather to get there.

Heading to the Shinkhu La pass
Heading to the Shinkhu La passRohit Mane

The journey ahead

The major challenges were the four mountain passes I had to cross. The first was Tanglang La. I love this pass; the roads are wide and well-paved, with only small sections of black ice. I passed through easily. The real allure is the views: the rising sun changes the colours of the mountains, with endless peaks stretching to the horizon. I had to take a moment to absorb and enjoy it.

We just had to stop and admire the views
We just had to stop and admire the viewsPrashant Agrawal

The next three passes were tougher. Lachung La and Nakee La are notorious for broken roads and constant truck traffic. These trucks are essential for supplies to Ladakh, but today, they were in my way. Lachung La was under re-pavement, but Nakee La was the worst I’ve seen. The most notorious, Baralacha La, was still ahead. It’s the only pass with significant snow and its proximity to Lahaul valley and Manali attracts tourists, and it was bustling. A broken road meant crossing a rocky river, causing a massive traffic jam. As loads of cars got stuck and bikers fell over while crossing, trucks provided entertainment with their musical horns. It was a fun, old-school form of entertainment amidst the chaos and lack of phone reception.

Traversing through the incredible Himalayas
Traversing through the incredible HimalayasRohit Mane

I crossed the river with ease, and met the crew, who had been waiting for two hours with lunch. We aimed to tackle Shinkhu La that day itself. After a short break, we headed up, but the weather had other plans. The Baralacha La jam had cost me two hours, and clouds covered Shinkhu La, with rain starting at its base. Going up, if it was snowing, was risky, and we had limited daylight to get our shot. We decided to push on. Adrenaline and determination kept us going, but I got stuck in a stream of water, losing precious time.

It became a battle against time to reach the top
It became a battle against time to reach the topRohit Mane

With some effort, we freed the car and pressed on. We made it, and just as we did, it started snowing, as if the Gods were celebrating our arrival. This was my fifth pass of the day. The car was phenomenal; the only weak link was me. My misjudgement got the car stuck, and I needed constant breaks due to the altitude. The Taigun was flawless. Despite the challenging terrain, it outperformed my expectations and brought me back happier than any other vehicle I’ve taken to Ladakh. I questioned the need for 4x4 vehicles, realising that a road trip to Ladakh need not be uncomfortable.

Even twelve hours of driving through treacherous terrain was not enough to stop Prashant from celebrating
Even twelve hours of driving through treacherous terrain was not enough to stop Prashant from celebrating Rohit Mane

Heading back to Manali, I couldn’t help but feel emotional. I would part ways with the car there. As real men deal with emotions, I fist-bumped the car and moved on. I wholeheartedly recommend looking out for the next edition of VWe and take my word for it — sign up to experience breathtaking locations in India in some of the finest cars, with fellow enthusiasts to join you for the drive.

Volkswagen Experiences takes you to desirable destinations in their best cars
Volkswagen Experiences takes you to desirable destinations in their best carsVolkswagen India

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